The FIMS community witnessed the start of a new tradition this past term, when the faculty hosted its first open dissertation defence on May 6.
Media Studies student Elise Thorburn defended her PhD dissertation, titled “Human-Machinic Assemblages: Technologies, Bodies, and the Recuperation of Social Reproduction in the Crisis Era,” in front of a public audience of friends, family and fellow students.
While public defences are more common in other disciplines and in other parts of the country and the world, the ability for FIMS students to select the option was only recently added by the Faculty of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies.
Thorburn is the first student to take that path, with the encouragement of her supervisor Nick Dyer-Witheford (whose dissertation defence was also public at Simon Fraser University when he was a student).
“I wanted to share the experience both so others can see how the process works, to alleviate anxieties, but also to celebrate the end of this long and arduous process of completing a PhD with the people closest to me,” said Thorburn.
The idea of sharing knowledge and learning from each other as part of the educational process appealed to Thorburn. She also felt it was a good way to set aside some of the competitiveness in which grad students find themselves immersed, with all of them constantly striving for the same funding, resources and jobs.
“But also, it was helpful to look into the audience and see the face of my partner, my father, my friends, when I was feeling exhausted and needed a boost.”
Associate Dean Pam McKenzie, who had a role in making the open defence option available to FIMS students, explained the philosophy behind them is to make scholarship public, both to remind academics of their obligations to the broader community and to enable the broader community to see the often hidden research that goes on at universities.
“An open defence acknowledges that it takes a community to complete a PhD,” said McKenzie. “An open defence recognizes that scholarship at a publically funded university should be public research, and invites the public to participate.”
Though there are compelling reasons to choose an open defence, any student going down that road would be forgiven for having some anxiety about it. For her part, Thorburn did admit to having some second thoughts after ticking the box for an open audience.
“I did have some concerns immediately after choosing it. It’s nerve-wracking enough to have to sit for several hours while senior scholars critique and question your work, and having an audience while I – on the spot – attempted to answer questions and defend my analysis upped the ante on that.”
Asked if she would encourage other students to follow her example, Thorburn said yes.
“I would definitely encourage people to do it. A defence is two hours long or more. It’s not like you will have hordes of people breaking down the doors to attend. You’ll be providing a service to the people that want to know what a defence looks like, and you might put yourself more at ease knowing you have people in the audience who are rooting for you.”
With her successful defence behind her, Thorburn has now turned her attention to the future. She has accepted a post-doctoral position at Brock University for the coming year, and will be looking for and applying to other positions. But not before she’s taken some time off in the summer to relax with her family in BC and work on some personal projects.
She hopes that in the future, open defences will become much more common both at Western and in FIMS.
“I think we should always be invested in processes of sharing knowledge and co-producing it together. A public defence can be a tiny contribution to that,” she concluded.