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10 May 2011

Defense and consensus – It’s been a while since my last entry here, and I thought I would talk a little about the dissertation and the road ahead, as I probably will not be talking much about it over the coming month. Since the presentation I have been digesting the criticism I received in an attempt to map out the next steps, and last Friday I discussed matters with my advisor. There are really two major things that need to be done right now: I need to restructure one section and I need to write a new (though relatively short) chapter. The restructuring isn’t so bad, as it mainly requires rearranging existing content, although I do have to add some new content as well. I am mostly finished with this now—I had hoped to finish it by today, but it will be done soon, at any rate. The new chapter, on the other hand, is probably going to be my main focus over the course of the next month. There are plenty of other things that need to get done, of course, but once these are completed it will be a matter of tidying things up and making sure that the dissertation is in the best shape I can manage.

“It would be rather simplistic, though, to think that these two approaches are as far apart as... well, as east and west.”

The next hurdle in the process is my first evaluation. This is a private meeting with my five committee members. The date for this first evaluation has been tentatively set for 23 June. I need to submit my draft two weeks prior to this date (actually, I’ll be sending drafts directly to my committee members), which leaves me with roughly a month at this point. As I mentioned previously, there will be no defense of the dissertation. I did have the presentation last month, but that was not really a defense. As my advisor puts it, the Korean system is based less on the idea of defending and more on the idea of reaching a consensus. So when I go in for my first evaluation, I may be answering questions about the dissertation, and I will probably even have to defend some of my choices, but the goal of the session is different from a defense. “Defense” implies some sort of attack, but what my committee members will be doing is giving suggestions and comments that they feel will improve the dissertation and make it worthy of Seoul National University. To be honest, I’m not nearly as worried about the evaluation as I was about the presentation. My committee is just as concerned about my success as I am—if I weren’t ready to begin evaluation, my advisor would have told me so after the presentation.

Even if everything goes off without a hitch at the first evaluation, I will still have to come back for a second and final evaluation. At this point the committee will take a look at any changes I’ve made and pass the final verdict. If things do not go so swimmingly, though, I may have another evaluation before that final evaluation. At each step along the way the committee will attempt to guide me in the right direction, and they will arrange for as many evaluations as they feel are necessary. The worst case scenario would be if the committee did not feel the dissertation was ready before the deadline (which is somewhere around the end of July, although I do not know the exact date). If that happens, my evaluation will be deferred to next semester. Obviously I’m hoping this doesn’t happen, and that things will go reasonably well.

Having never experienced the Western system, it’s hard for me to make a comparison—everything I know is based on what I have read. My impression, though, is that the differences boil down to cultural differences between East and West. As anyone who has ever done any reading on the subject will know, the West is generally portrayed as individualistic, while the East is portrayed as collectivistic. The defense of the dissertation, or the viva voce, seems to me to be the individual defending his or her research on the academic battlefield. The Korean evaluation, on the other hand, is about reaching common ground.

It would be rather simplistic, though, to think that these two approaches are as far apart as... well, as east and west. While the Western candidate may ultimately find him or herself alone on the battlefield, the road to that battlefield is traveled with the advisor, and the training is undertaken in the collectivist environment of academia. No one who studies on their own without professors and peers to hone them can become a complete scholar. There will inevitably be gaps in the research, and most likely the researcher will be completely blind to these gaps. We need other minds to sharpen our own, or we are little more than a frog in a well, oblivious to the world of ideas outside our own.

Likewise, the Eastern candidate may be concerned with reaching a consensus, but this does not mean blindly following the orders of your superiors. As in the West, the institution is concerned with producing a work of research that meets its standards, and it does no one any good to simply parrot ideas. The comments and suggestions of the committee are just that—they are not ultimatums. All the candidate need do is produce research that satisfies the committee, even if it does not openly reflect all of the suggestions. This is because, as I said above, the goal of the candidate and the goal of the committee are the same: to produce a solid dissertation. When I did my MA, I distinctly remember receiving suggestions that I decided not to follow, and when my final evaluation came I explained my position and why I chose to do what I did. The committee accepted my explanations, and my thesis was approved.

So, while the methods may be different, ultimately the goal is the same. Having already gone through my public humiliation, I am glad that I am now facing a private evaluation with five respected professors rather than a public defense. However I arrive at my goal, though, I just hope that I can be proud of what I end up with.

Like I said at the beginning of the entry, I will probably not be talking much about the dissertation over the next four weeks. Instead, I will be busy actually working on the dissertation (although I will take time out now and again to write about topics not related to the dissertation here). The week after I submit the dissertation draft to my committee is final exams week, which actually works out brilliantly. I will be able to turn my full attention to exams and grading, and once that is done I will be able to take a short breather before the evaluation and the ensuing mayhem as I (hopefully) make a mad dash for the final hurdle and the finish line.

It’s getting close now. I can almost smell it in the air.

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