How to Defend a Dissertation Virtually

Clint Smith, a writer, teacher and poet, dreamed for more than six years of the moment he would defend his dissertation. But instead of standing in front of his four committee members at Harvard University, Dr. Smith obtained his doctorate from his kitchen table in Washington D.C. over Zoom. And he did it with 175 friends and family listening in virtually, joining from all over the world.

One of those people was Dr. Smith’s 89-year-old grandfather, who was watching from his home in New Orleans. His grandfather was born in Monticello, Miss. in 1930, during a time when there were lynchings of black people and “the Klan rode by his family’s house at night and told the black folks in the neighborhood to stay away from certain parts of town,” said Dr. Smith. His grandfather got his own Ph.D. from Howard University in 1965.

“It’s hard to find silver linings amid everything going on right now, but one thing that’s true is that my grandfather wouldn’t have been able to watch my defense if it had been held in person. But because it was held over Zoom, he got to be a part of this moment,” wrote Dr. Smith on Twitter. “I’m grateful for that.”

For 45 minutes, four committee members listened to Dr. Smith defend his thesis, which focused on people who were sentenced to life without parole as teenagers and what education meant to them when their options are severely limited. As he completed his final sentence his community was invited to turn their cameras on: “It was like small light bulbs popping up across the screen.”

In this pandemic, Dr. Smith, like countless other students around the world, is experiencing a new form of gathering. And while certain elements were conspicuously absent during the defending of the dissertation — no celebratory hugs and clinking of champagne glasses, for instance — a new ritual was invented: watching the defense be given in real-time.

Dr. Smith, who won the National Poetry Slam Championship and published his first full-length collection of poetry, “Counting Descent,” in 2016, considered this to be a milestone in his career.

“For so long I’d imagined that my dissertation would look a certain way, and I think I had been feeling a lot of disappointment and even despair for this moment that had kept me going for so long, no longer being possible because of physical distancing,” he said. “But, it ended up being better than I could’ve ever imagined,” he said, “because I got to share the moment with so many people from every part of my life.”

In this pandemic, institutions including Harvard and the Supreme Court are opening up gatherings to people who would have never previously have access to them.

This moment has people considering which of these experiences we will be able to bring into the future, when IRL gatherings are allowed again. “It’s hard to imagine going back to a scenario in which people say, ‘OK, well now your grandparents aren’t going to be able to tune in because it can only be people in the room,’” Dr. Smith said. “I mean, that would seem absurd.”

He thinks we’ve reached a point of change in how these ceremonies are carried out and who can attend them. “There’s no going back from this,” he said, “because they found how special it is for people from all parts of these folks’ lives to have the opportunity to tune in.”

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