I had my viva back in February, and according to my examiners I passed with flying colours. It still feels unreal for me to say. One of the most daunting things about the viva was the feeling of isolation as I was preparing for it. Most people I knew who had been through the process gave me fairly general advice, but it was never specific enough for me to put me at ease. Many of my friends and contemporaries are crossing the same milestones just now, as some of us are submitting our corrections while the other is at their viva or making the preliminary submission for assessment. So this is a good time to reflect on what happened, and talk about the things I wish I had known before.
One of the most daunting things about the viva is that it is a milestone that really has no similar precedent over the course of a PhD. It feels like a cross between an annual review meeting, where our writing and research is scrutinised by examiners, and a job interview, where a more holistic sense of who we are is assessed, in a way that feels uncannily like neither of those things. Talking to my supervisor helped me get a sense of what I needed to do to prepare for the viva. I needed to read my thesis again, cover to cover, and be familiar enough with the argument to be able to have a detailed and engaging conversation about it. I was anxious at first about whether or not I would need to know every bit of theory or secondary criticism I cite, but my supervisor reassured me that the viva was ultimately about elaborating on and explaining what was in my thesis, and I was not going to be expected to justify every minute aspect of it. To that end, my supervisor even offered to have a mock viva with me to go over what to expect on the day, both in terms of the questions themselves but also the running order of it. This was singularly the most helpful piece of preparation I got: it was the first time I felt confident about what was to come. I did not know I could ask for this, and I was glad that I got the offer.
And speaking of things I could have asked for, my Personal Tutor from when I was an undergraduate had the following message: the University has in places adjustment procedures to make sure that you have the support you need, and that this is not asking for special treatment but asking for rights to which we are legally entitled. This has been something I have echoed to all of my students as well, signposting the Student Support Office, Personal Tutors, and Disability Services. So naturally, this is something I forgot about when it came to my own studies until the very last moment. I left it fairly late, but I did get the right accommodations I needed in the end.
My supervisor offered to check in with me just before, and I much preferred talking to someone rather than being alone with my thoughts. I did say to him how strange it felt that the viva was here already, and he responded with something that was so pithy and reassuring that if you garbled the syntax a little bit it would sound exactly like something Master Yoda would say: ‘It is here because you are ready.’ I could always rely on my supervisor to have confidence in me even when I did not.
I really enjoyed my viva. After all this build up, it was possibly the only time when I could have an engrossing conversation about my research where the spotlight was all on me. I was immensely fortunate to have had this experience, to have had examiners who were kind and generous with their feedback and encouragement. I have had colleagues who have had horrific experiences in their viva, as they were browbeaten to the point of tears by hostile examiners, had their competence as researchers called into question, and faced some of the worst kinds of gatekeeping in academia. This kind of gatekeeping, unsurprisingly, targets scholars from marginalised backgrounds disproportionately. As a man facing an all-male panel, I never felt the need some of my colleagues would have had implicitly or explicitly, to justify being in the room. But they should not have to, and I am hopeful that this kind of hostility is becoming increasingly rare thanks to the people who are speaking up about this more widely and changing the culture in academia.
The discussion itself was fairly stimulating. The question I found most challenging, weirdly enough, was the icebreaker at the start, ‘Why are you writing about Nadine Gordimer? Why her late works?’. I was so prepared to talk about everything that was in my thesis, the pdf opened on my second monitor, that I forgot to reflect on my relationship with it. Then the questions gradually gained momentum, starting with big picture questions about methodology and theory, concerning late style, ideas of epistemic justice, the wider teleology of Gordimer’s oeuvre that I was sketching, and why I was characterising it as a negative dialectic. All of this was fairly straightforward, and really a space for me to elaborate rather than explain.
Then the real fun began: we got to the point where my examiners asked me specific and pointed questions about excerpts from my thesis, asking me to explain my interpretation of Timothy Morton’s notion of the symbiotic real, or asking me to reflect critically on the significance of ubuntu to an ethics of care. I have a very nasty tendency of blanking out on names when I am stressed, and I was scared I would forget Patricia Hill Collins’ name. Fortunately, I kept my cool and avoided any such error. While these questions were putatively the most difficult, I felt more ready to answer them because I was happy to admit when I did not have an answer to the question because I had not considered that perspective before, and was instead willing to think out loud and work through some of the issues. I have always avoided using the word ‘defence’ to refer to a viva because my goal was never to defend my research from scrutiny or attack, but to learn and grow from discussions around it.
Finally, my examiners asked me about what would come next, where I would go once I closed the book on Gordimer. It was timely for me to reflect on what I had achieved, but also the limitations of my own work and understanding. The fact remained that I dedicated my thesis to looking at issues of race and colonialism from the perspective of a white writer, that this was a titan of South African literature because of wider structural issues in the literary market where white writers were more widely read and circulated. This conversation made clear that the viva was not a terminal milestone, but was a conversation which I could learn from by reflecting upon going forward.
It hadn’t sunk in for a while. I tried to re-live the experience repeatedly these last couple of months for a number of reasons: to reflect on the feedback I got from my examiners while I completed my corrections, to think about how I could refine my argument as I considered how I could publish my work, and, above all, to once again feel that sense of achievement when all other news is dispiriting at best. I thought re-living it would make it feel more real. But over the course of the last few months, when many of my colleagues are also having their viva or submitting, I find myself talking about my experience with other people, trying to reassure or encourage them. What makes this feel real is seeing others also cross the line, when my experiences with passing my viva can be of help to help someone else. Perhaps it is the nature of finishing a doctorate in a time when pandemic restrictions exacerbate the isolation of solitary research, but things only feel real when we have communities where we can see and support each other. In the same way that my supervisor’s confidence in me seemed to bolster my morale going in, and his demystifying the whole process helped me anticipate what to expect, I hope everyone I know who will face their viva can feel reassured with my experience, and that I have every faith in them and their research.