The Viva

On Sunday I returned to Cambridge for the final moment of my time as a doctoral student: the viva. The “viva” is the British name for a thesis defense. It’s short for “viva voce” which means, “with live speech.” After you submit your thesis, your department appoints two examiners, usually these would be seasoned NT scholars, to read your thesis, assess your work, and cross-examine you during an oral defense of your thesis. So that’s what I came back to do… hold the line, so to speak, while two people way smarter than I am try to tear my argument to shreds.

First of all, before we get to the viva, being back in Cambridge was bizarre. We have moved back to the States, but riding back into Cambridge on the train from Kings Cross just felt so normal and natural, like I was just coming home from a long trip. It was as though I were going home to Tyndale and would see Asher and Candice waiting on me. It made me glad to be back, but this gladness was panged with sadness at knowing this was no longer home. It was hard for me, and I know it was hard for Candice staying behind with Asher. After all, I would at least get to see our friends for a couple of days.

I arrived in Cambridge sans suitcase, as the airline had misplaced it and was trying to locate it. Normally this would be less of a big deal, but I had the suit I was supposed to wear for my viva in that bag! In the end it didn’t bother me that much. It was strange, but I didn’t give it much thought after getting to Cambridge. I knew it would be fine. I knew friends would give me whatever I needed (and more). And, honestly, my mind was quite focused on what I had to face in the viva, not so much on what I would wear. The suitcase did not arrive until after the viva, but it didn’t really matter. In fact, I think I was better off not having it. After all, the suit that I borrowed from Ryan (bless him!) was MUCH nicer than my suit, and it fit me better than my suit—it was an amazing suit. If you said to me, “Collin, I will let you wear this suit one more time if you wanted, but you’d have to do another viva.” I would seriously consider it, the suit was that cool.

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I got more and more nervous about the viva as it approached and as I began to prepare. I read through (most of) my thesis again to absorb as much of the content as I could beforehand. You do NOT want to get stumped by a question in your viva. Monday, the day before, I spent all day preparing and couldn’t sleep that night, so I prepared some more.

The morning of the viva I got up and went to meet with my supervisor, Simon Gathercole. Even though he had just flown in from Australia (24 hr. travel day, that one), he was gracious enough to meet me early the next morning to see how I was getting on. Despite the long travel day, I think he was genuinely excited and probably a bit nervous for me. A viva is a sort of rite of passage for a scholar. You only have one (hopefully!) and you usually never forget it. Simon asked me a few “warm up” questions to get me in the right mindset. I could tell he really wanted me to do well, as did I. We tried to anticipate some of the questions I would receive, but this is usually a futile task, as there’s really no way to know what your examiners will latch on to. Simon prayed with me, which was also very kind, and I returned to Tyndale to have lunch, read a few more things, and generally clear my head and try not to let the nerves drive me to a breakdown!

Everyone I saw at Tyndale knew that my viva was that day. They all spoke very gently to me, usually in semi-hushed tones, asking, “Hey there, so what time will it be today?” – “2:30” – “Oh, okay then, we’ll be praying. I’m sure it will go well.” It’s surprising, really, how many people I would pass in the hall or in the library every day at Tyndale while I was writing the thesis, but now every one of those people was stopping and saying, “So, how you doing today? Everything alright?” Some wouldn’t even speak, they’d just silently give me a pat on the back. Looking back it is quite humorous, but at the time it was very comforting, and as I was about to fly off the handle any minute… comfort was good.

At lunchtime, Drew (of the Meltons, with whom I was staying) heated up some leftovers for my lunch and just quietly sat it next to me while I was nervously flipping through my thesis making notes. He also lent me a tie to go with my awesome suit—pink was the color of choice :). The minutes crept by as I kept checking the clock. I had nothing planned that day so I was just sitting around waiting for it to happen. One o’clock… 1:20… 1:35… 1:50. I got dressed, collected my thesis, glasses, pen, Greek New Testament, and my academic gown. Yes, they have gowns for you to wear during very academic things like vivas. They’re actually not required anymore, but I like to roll old school. I was ready to go. Nothing left to do but walk over… did I have everything? Yep. I guess that’s it. Glasses? Yeah, got those. Okay, so I’ll just go. Just gonna walk over… one step at a time.

I swear I wasn’t that nervous until finally I was on the threshold facing the thing. I love the walk to the Divinity Faculty. It’s such a peaceful part of town and Selwyn College is always lovely. The archway of Selwyn College is one of my favorites. There is a phrase written above it in Greek that says, “Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous.” Ανδριζεσθε (andridzesthe) -- I said to myself (that’s the part that means ‘be courageous’). Ανδριζεσθε. I had forgotten that that was written up there, but I’m glad it was. It felt good walking under it. I walked around the quad in the college trying to clear my head. I had some time to kill. Just needed to relax. I prayed. Asked for clarity. Thought of all the people who said they would be praying for me. And finally, behind Selwyn, where the gardens just meet the edge of the Divinity Faculty building, there is a little bench off in the trees. I went and sat.

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I talked myself through the main contributions of my thesis… they were fourfold… one… two… three… four… there, that wasn’t so hard. I prayed some more.

Then I walked in the door of the faculty. This was my moment. Crazy that it was finally here. Couldn’t believe I was actually about to have my viva! I should enjoy it, I told myself. This is where I finally get to talk about what I’ve been doing holed up in the library for four years. I sat in my supervisor’s office and he wished me good luck. Then the knock on the door. They were ready for me.

I sat at the end of a long seminar table. Each of my examiners took a place on the long sides of the table on either side of me, so as to attack from multiple angles at once :). They were pleasant at first… said I looked good in my borrowed suit. Yes, they were definitely right about that. Then the mood turned more sterile; it was time to begin.

There are two examiners, one internal, one external. I had heard lots of rumors about my external. “He’s very rigorous. But he’s fair.” “He won’t pull any punches, but he’ll like it if you give him a good fight.” “He likes to stick the knife in a bit.” This last one had worried me a bit :). I see now that their advice was essentially correct. From the very beginning my External (as we’ll call him) launched into critique after critique of my argument. Even as I was answering one critique, he would begin picking apart my answers for some inconsistency or something that was unclear or unsure. He pushed me to give details and examples.

I’m going to record some of what I remember… most of this post is for the sake of my own memory anyway. But before I do, I must note that both my examiners were VERY good. They stuck entirely to the topic of my thesis (rather than wanting to talk about their own interests or areas of expertise), they had read my thesis (twice) thoroughly and interacted with my research at a very deep level. Their job is to push me and test the limits of my knowledge. They’re supposed to make me defend my argument. In fact, in the UK it is often taken as a sign of respect to engage in very lively and vigorous debate with someone, as the general idea is that you would only push back so vigorously if you thought the other person could hold their own in pushing back at you.

External: “I see you’ve only given a few examples from Greco-Roman literature, did you read the source material for yourself or were you just responding to scholars who cited it?”
Me: “I did read it. No, I was not just responding to scholars, though I did include those examples because arguments had been made from them….”
External: “What did you read? Can you give some examples?”
Me: “Greco-Roman romance—Daphnis and Chloe, Callirhoe, etc… biography—Lucian’s Demonas, Tacitus, Plutarch, etc…. history—Herodotus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, etc… I thought I would find more examples in such and such literature but I didn’t for such and such reasons.”
External: “I see, well you’ve only listed four examples from Rabbinic literature, surely those aren’t the only four.”
Me: “No, there are others, but those are the four mentioned in Meyer’s argument. So I dealt with those.”
External: “Oh, so you read widely in Greco-Roman literature, but NOT in Rabbinics, there you were just following what others had cited?”
Me: “No, I read widely and found other examples but…”
External: “Yes, I found some examples too that I’d like to run by you, but first why don’t you tell me what your examples are, the ones you did NOT include in your thesis.”
Me: “The examples are such and such and I didn’t include them because such and such.”
External: “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls? You haven’t listed any examples, did you search there?”
Me: “Yes.”
External: “Tell me about what you found.”
Me: “I found this example but it’s irrelevant for my argument so I didn’t include it.”

We continued in this manner for nigh on two hours! Two hours! Some vivas go longer than this, but usually if they go longer it’s because there is a problem. They generally won’t put you through the wringer for longer than that if they’re just going to pass you at the end. I was exhausted and terrified. Looking back on things I can see that it hadn’t gone all that badly, but in the midst of it I was scared because every answer I gave seemed to be less than satisfactory, since they would just press me further at every point. Near the end, it went like this.

External: “Just to be clear, I want to read you a syllogism and I’m wondering if you’re thesis is arguing this syllogism. Jesus reads minds. Only God can read minds. Jesus must be God.”
Me: <very emphatically> “NO!” <I almost yelled> (this is a misconstrual of my main argument, which my examiner knew full well, but he was very astutely seeing how I would respond to such an oversimplification) “Extraordinary knowledge, even knowledge of one’s thoughts, does not necessarily have to be the purview of God alone (for instance, if God wished to endow a prophet with this ability, presumably he could). Extraordinary knowledge is a trait that could be used to characterize a person in a number of ways as a seer, sage, philosopher, prophet, etc.—the point is that there are other contextual factors which one must consider before determining the appropriate epithet (i.e., seer, sage, prophet, divine). It’s the way Luke has treated the motif narrratively that gives us those indications. This is why my thesis must explore Luke’s narrative use of the motif in order to discover his christological presuppositions!”

This was essentially the height of my defense. He had attacked the very heart of my argument to see if I could hold the main line without giving ground to his verbal assault :). He was a very, very clever examiner. A formidable opponent, and I was flattered to have such a senior scholar read what I had read so closely.

After two hours, the Internal said, “Well, then, we’ve been at it about two hours… and I think I’m satisfied, but I’ll defer as is customary to my colleague” <he smiled a bit and continued> “who, as the external examiner, may ask as many questions as he wishes until satisfied.” My external examiner gave the indication that he was finished, and they showed me out of the room. That was it. No indication of what the result would be. They would communicate their recommendation to my supervisor, who would let me know.

As I said before, I was terrified that something had gone really wrong. Why would it have been that brutal if they didn’t have real problems with the thesis. I went to my supervisor’s office. I told him how intense it was.

Supervisor: “Two hours?! That’s quite a long time. How did it go?”
Me: “It was intense. Continual questioning and picking apart my thesis. I’m not sure what they’ll say. I may have to make some corrections or clarify some things.”
Supervisor: “What did they ask you?”
Me: “This…”
Supervisor: “Really… then what did you say?”
Me: “This…”
Supervisor: “And did you tell them that?”
Me: “Yes! But they never seemed to be satisfied with my answers!”

I left his office without feeling too confident about the result.There are some honest holes in my thesis that I’ll acknowledge readily, but I tried to do the best I could with what at times I thought was the worst topic in the world! I knew vivas were supposed to be tough, but I figured I would have to make some changes and then resubmit a new thesis with corrections made. I called Candice to talk through it.

About 25 minutes later, my supervisor called me… “Great news! Get over here ASAP and fix your typos! You passed with just typos! You can fix them with tip-x (white out) and be done this afternoon! Come and we’ll celebrate.”

I was ecstatic. I was at Tyndale House and I RAN out the door practically yelling to people that I had passed with only typos! I saw Dirk (research fellow at Tyndale) out by the bike shed and he hooped and hollered along with me. I got on my bike (yes, suit and all, but I couldn’t wait for walking) and rode to the faculty. My supervisor had a bottle of champagne at the ready (first class, Simon, first class). We toasted with a few others in the faculty to me passing my viva. It was all over. It was done. I was a doctor. That was that.

I told a friend later that I was certain the Lord had been with me during the viva. I recalled obscure details with ease and argued clearly (I think) the points of my defense. There are certainly things in the thesis that could have been written better, but the Lord gave me the words to express my thoughts cogently in the viva in order to defend my work. No doubt this was on account of the many who were during those moments lifting me up in prayer.

The celebration with friends afterward was epic and joyous, but I wanted so bad to be able to celebrate it with Candice, the one who had been there with me through the whole thing even to the bitter end! I’ve rarely in my life felt such joy and such sorrow in so great and equal measures. Joy not only because I had just completed my doctorate successfully, but also because many of my dear friends were waiting to celebrate with me. Sorrow not only because Candice was not there with me, but also because I would have to leave Cambridge and my friends the next day and for the first time I didn’t know when I would ever come back.

Joy and sorrow in great and equal measure… this is a good description of what the last few months have been like. The thesis has been the cause of both, as has loving and leaving our friends… enjoying the final chapter of Cambridge while preparing to close it. The more joy we found in our friends, the more sorrow we felt to leave. I told Candice once when I was feeling particularly sad and happy at the same time: “I have lots of feelings. All at once.” In the final analysis, though, it is a sweet sorrow, and when we remember it all, grace will be the song and joy the melody.


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