Dissertation defence in exceptional circumstances
“It is a contradictory experience after many years of work on a long project. I had waited for the celebration and planned the post-defence party. It was a shame everything had to be cancelled, but, on the other hand, I understand these circumstances very well,” says Hanna Limatius.
Hanna Limatius, a researcher of English philology, is one of the six people who have defended their doctoral dissertation remotely since the premises of Tampere University went into lockdown on 18 March because of the coronavirus epidemic. For the first two weeks after the lockdown, 13 dissertation defences had been scheduled. Six of the doctoral candidates chose a remote defence and seven postponed the event.
Academic Officer Suvi Ikonen from Tampere University’s Support Services for Educational Leadership and Development says that some students wanted to have a traditional dissertation defence and postponed the occasion. Some doctoral candidates chose to defend their dissertation remotely because they wanted to keep to their agreed schedule despite the altered circumstances.
The six dissertation defences organised remotely at Tampere University have so far taken place in four faculties. The Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology and the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences have both organised two remote defences, while one has been conducted at the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences and one at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
The seven postponed dissertation defences will also be organised by these four Faculties.
Remote technology has worked well
Thus far, Ikonen has only heard positive comments on the remote dissertation defences. After initial apprehension, Limatius also says that she was relieved, happy and satisfied with how quickly Tampere University issued the technical instructions on remote dissertation defences.
“It was also a great relief that there were no technical problems during the defence, because in that situation you are very nervous about sudden issues with the connections. I was relieved that everything went well, and I was able to complete the dissertation defence in these exceptional circumstances. It was not how I had pictured it, but many things in all our lives are now different than we thought. We are doing our best to adapt,” Limatius says.
Ikonen confirms that the University has a clear guideline on remote dissertation defences. First the custos arranges that someone from his or her research group will act as technical support on the Teams application, which is used to conduct the remote dissertation defences, and to adjust its settings and approve external followers to attend during the defence.
A few days prior to the event, a rehearsal is conducted with the doctoral candidate, opponent, custos, technical support, and an audio-visual equipment specialist from the IT Services present.
“The rehearsal is a tool to ensure that the connections work well and that the parties can focus on the essentials,” Ikonen says.
The Zoom application is used as a backup system, but so far it has not been needed.
The idea of a postponement did not appeal
Limatius’s dissertation defence plans had largely already been made when the coronavirus changed everything. The dissertation had been printed and the date of the defence was stated on the title pages.
“I was first stressed about how the defence would be organised; whether it would be organised at all or if it would have to be postponed. A long postponement would have affected my job search and funding opportunities. It was pretty clear to me that I did not want to ask for a postponement. It was disappointing, but I wanted the dissertation defence to take place this spring,” Limatius says.
The dissertation defence as an academic ritual was not what Limatius missed. The fact that the event could not be shared in the same way with friends, relatives and colleagues was more disappointing.
“The absence of a physically present audience was a bigger disappointment. The rituals are not that important to me personally,” Limatius notes.
The remote dissertation defence has the same dress code as traditional events. The opponent, custos, and doctoral candidate wear a dark, festive outfit. The programme of the event is also similar, with the custos opening the event and the doctoral candidate giving his or her introductory speech.
“The only difference was that now everyone was at their computers at home and the custos told the audience at the start of the event how the technical side of it would be handled. It is my understanding that the defence followed the traditional pattern as closely as possible,” Limatius says.
Defending a dissertation from your living room
Limatius says that she dressed for the remote defence as instructed, as did the opponent and the custos.
“It was quite strange to defend my dissertation from my own living room,” Limatius notes.
Only her husband was physically present. The other participants could be seen on the computer screen, even though at first only the opponent and the custos appeared.
After the defence, it was agreed that a five-minute coffee break would be held, during which the doctoral candidate, custos and opponent got a glass of champagne and some people in the audience got a cup of coffee.
Next came a section where the audience was also allowed to talk and turn on their camera if they wanted to be included in the live broadcast. Limatius remembers it as a nice moment when her parents appeared on the screen to congratulate her, and the opponent and the custos were able to meet them remotely.
Limatius did not get to experience the traditional post-doctoral evening party. She has talked to her supervisors and the opponent about the possibility of sharing a meal sometime in the future, but a time has not been set yet.
Limatius says that she is in a fortunate position in that she does not live alone and was able to celebrate with her husband. During the evening, she was also in contact with the rest of her friends and family.
“We were on Skype and phoned with my parents and relatives. That day and evening went quickly. I got lots of messages from various people. It was not as disappointing as I initially thought it would be. Some people sent flowers and that made it more festive. After all, if I organise the after-party six months later, it will not feel like the evening of the defence day,” Limatius concludes.
The exceptional circumstances improved accessibility
At the most, Limatius’s dissertation defence was followed by an audience of 80 people. The average number of followers of remote dissertation defences at Tampere University has been from 50 to 70 people, of whom about a half have come from outside the University. Some of the outsiders have been there because of their job, some because they are relatives.
“Positive experiences of remote dissertation defences have also been shared in the national doctoral education network. In particular, the accessibility of dissertation defences has increased because you can participate from anywhere, including with a mobile device. No travel is involved, and you can participate from a long distance even in the middle of the working day,” Ikonen says.
Could the possibility of remote participation remain in place even after the coronavirus restrictions?
“The technical challenges are such that the easiest way to carry out a remote dissertation defence is for us to be involved with our own computers. When we return to traditional dissertation defences, simply switching on Teams is not enough. We also need technology in the lecture hall so that the parties do not just speak on screen. A good implementation requires a two-way video-audio connection, which means that an AV expert is needed at the event,” Ikonen explains.
Dissertation defences have been streamed online in the past, for example, in situations where the doctoral candidate is doing a joint degree.
“However, the current scale is new. I am in favour of the possibility of continuing to participate in a dissertation defence remotely. After all, it is excellent for the presentation and accessibility of scientific research that dissertation defences can also be followed from elsewhere,” Ikonen adds.
Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Hanna Limatius’s doctoral dissertation in English philology: Communities of Empowerment: Exploring the Discourse Practices of Plus-Size Fashion Bloggers was examined at Tampere University’s Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences on Saturday 4 April 2020. The dissertation is available online on http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-03-1489-7