Week 5, or How to Successfully Defend A Master’s Thesis

Yes, it’s true, I did defend my thesis on Wednesday and I’m still riding on the high of being free from that enormous weight.

As I’ve got this step behind me, I want to reflect a little bit on the process. My program required me to write a portfolio, with the understanding that the essays will build off of those written for seminars over the course of the year. I used an essay that I wrote for my Popular Culture and Power class during my first semester, and the essay I wrote for my Harlem Renaissance class for the other. At the end of the year, my first step was to get organized…

STEP 1: Get organized! Make yourself a schedule!
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At the start of the summer, I was required to create and submit a writing plan to my advisor and the Dean. While this was primarily a formality so that I would be allowed to hold a part time job at Michaels, having this as a set of guidelines was really helpful.

I admittedly did not follow this schedule exactly, but I followed it well enough to get a first draft in on August 1 as planned and a defense by the end of September. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to be firm with your goals, but flexible about how and when you get there.

 

STEP 2: Make sure to do your research!

I already wrote about the joys of archival research, so be sure to check that out, as well as the lovely piece that was written about me from the VCU end.

STEP 3: Just write! 

Write, unfiltered, as much as you can, every day if possible. I also wrote about that struggle over the summer as well in another blog post.

STEP 4: Editing, editing…and more editing.

IMG_4348After I wrote my first draft and submitted it to my advisor the first time, she gave me a nice little letter with general comments, as well as a physical copy of my paper with marginalia. It took me a little while to wade through all of her comments, but after I did, I compiled a list of all the edits as a check list with notes on how to address each point. (For example, she might suggest that I need to add historical evidence, and I would write in which books or articles had the evidence she was looking for. Occasionally, I’d write a sentence or two addressing the issue on the page. Or rewrite an entire section on the back of a page…)

This process was particularly stressful because I waited until school started to really get into this. So I did an insane amount of content edits in about two weeks. For two weeks, I carried my binder of notes and drafts and edits around with me until I felt like crazy Joe Gould, writing and rewriting his oral history. I was agitated and stressed out for two solid weeks, and in the days leading up to my second submission, I had every last one of my family and friends praying for me.

But fortunately, my second submission was defensible! I got my advisor my second draft Monday morning of the 11th and by the 12th, she’d e-mailed me saying my draft was good, that she’d go ahead and e-mail my committee to set up a date at the end of September, that I would have yet another annotated draft in my mailbox and that after finishing those edits, I should e-mail out my portfolio (my third draft) to my committee by the 15th. (Can I just take a second to emphasize what a SUPERHERO my advisor is???)

STEP 5: Schedule and prepare for your defense.

My advisor handled this part, primarily because I think she thought we’d be able to get the ball moving faster if she plead on my behalf. I had to get my defense done by the end of September and while I wanted to be done, the fast turn around had less to do with me and more to do with satisfying administration.

Because of this, I didn’t have any control over when I actually defended. They gave me a date and a time, and that was it. I gave myself a week break from looking at my thesis because honestly, I was burnt out from thinking about it. Then, I started trying to prepare.

My defense, as I understood it, was not a formal thing. It would mostly be a conversation. My advisor suggested however, that I write a short statement to introduce my work. I tried very hard to write it, but it only happened the night before the big day, and in the end of it was just a series of bullet points– cute anecdotes about being a precocious child in love with comics and a hotheaded teenager using comics to prove a point in English class. I talked about how I came to Black Panther comics and Incognegro, what I was trying to accomplish and where I wanted to go with my work.  I practiced it in my car driving from Suffolk to Williamsburg and to my dog, who had no idea what was happening but looked at me encouragingly.

STEP 6: DEFEND!

Even knowing that the defense was informal, that my committee members were awesome, that my advisor would not set me up for failure, I was still nervous going in. I put on my James Baldwin sweatshirt and prayed for the confidence of Angela Davis, the candor of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the presence of mind of Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, DuBois and literally every Black figure I’ve ever been inspired by as I walked up to the building.

We had it in the library in the American Studies building. I chatted with my advisor until everyone appeared, and soon after that, my advisor welcomed everyone and gave me the floor for my introduction. I did it and then the questions started. One of my committee members set me at ease by saying that all of his questions should be framed by the fact that he thought my portfolio was great and it was a really fun read. He got the ball rolling by asking me to talk about the parts that I enjoyed writing and did well in my portfolio and which could have used more work– and as I described how fun it was to go do archival research and learning about the historical presence of Black Panther, I finally understood what everyone was trying to tell me. I was the expert on this. I knew this stuff. This was my wheelhouse and I loved it. It showed in my work. It showed in my face as I lit up talking about my paper. So it went on like that for an hour and a half, fielding questions about intellectual property, time-traveling frogs, and Christopher Priest. They complimented sections of my close readings and pointed out one important section of an image that I completely missed (thankfully it didn’t destroy my argument and I can go back and add it as a footnote.) They gave me suggestions and helped me think through where I could go with my ideas. I took lots of notes, and then at last, it was over.

They asked me to step out of the room for a few minutes and when the door opened again, my advisor came to get me, smiling widely and giving me thumbs up. “They loved it!” she told me, and I walked back into the room to congratulations and hugs. I chatted with them for a little while longer, got myself a celebratory hazelnut latte, and called my parents with the news as I walked to class.

STEP 7: CELEBRATE AND GIVE THANKS!

IMG_4389 I spent the hours after my successful defense buying myself ingredients to make stew, having Red Lobster with my parents and writing a blog post about my gratitude for everyone who helped me get to this point.

The celebration lasted a couple of days. I was taken out for dinner, ice cream and coffee by friends and family. My friend got me a hilariously appropriate congratulatory Superman card, on which she had crossed out the “birthday” with Sharpie and added “defense” instead. I got calls from friends and texts from advisors and mentors and I could not have been happier.

STEP 8: Attend to the final administrative touches.

Now, even though the hard part is over, I still have administrative touches to go through. My committee each gave me drafts with comments and line edits, though one member assured me it would be a day or two of edits at the most. I still have to submit it to an online system for the College, which could result in formatting edits, plus forms of all kinds which will allow it to go on JSTOR and I have to get it bound for the American Studies department once those edits happen.

My advisor suggested I get these done sooner than later, so I’ll probably take this up again over Fall Break. I applied to get my diploma in January, so I do need to make sure all of these logistic matters are in order so nothing stands between me and degree number 2.

It’s been a wild ride but the worst is over thankfully. Now, I can move on to the next step– I’ll admit, I’m already thinking about comps lists.

As my mom would say, “Keep it movin’.”

2 thoughts on “Week 5, or How to Successfully Defend A Master’s Thesis

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