Virtual defence and real memories: Doing academia in times of CODIV-19 pandemic

—originally posted at https://www.eur.nl/en/eshcc/news/virtual-defence-and-real-memories-doing-academia-times-codiv-19-pandemic—

PhD defence Min Xu | Erasmus University Rotterdam

“While being familiar with one-on-one video chat, I could only imagine what a virtual PhD defence would be like. After all, it turned out to be a memorable experience”. Dr. Min Xu defended her PhD titled “Getting close to the media world: An ethnographic analysis of everyday encounters with the film industry in contemporary China”. What makes her defence especially unique is the fact that it was done entirely online. In this interview, Min shares her story with us.

Rashid: Dear Min, congratulations on your defence! On behalf of the PhD Club, I can say that we are so happy for you and very proud! I know that your experience was quite unusual, you defended entirely online. How fascinating! I have so many questions, but first of all, where were you physically during the defence? Were you in Rotterdam?

Min: Thank you very much, Rashid. I was at home in Shanghai, China. There were travel restrictions to the Netherlands. So, I had to cancel the trip…

Rashid: Were you given a choice between defending online now or doing it at the later stage in the traditional way?

Min: Yes, there were two options. But postponing to autumn would have made it difficult to start a job at a university in China this year. To avoid an unexpected gap year, I chose to defend online.

Rashid: And how did you prepare for the defence?

Min: Before the defence, we held two test sessions which helped me a lot. The pedel (master of ceremonies during PhD defences in the Netherlands) organised a session for the committee and myself to test if video conferencing worked properly for everyone, and to try out the ‘breakout rooms’ feature for the discussions of the committee before and after the defence. At this point, I got the chance to say ‘hello’ to the committee. During the meeting we laughed while experimenting with the virtual background. After this session, I was prepared in technical terms. 

Mentally, I became more motivated after the mock defence given by the members of our amazing research group. They gave me important questions to ponder and wonderful suggestions to improve my answers and speech. Their video conferencing presentation tips, for example, included adjusting the slides to leave space for the video windows, and balancing time duration for each slide, etc. These tips were necessary for the defence in an entirely virtual environment.

Rashid: What did you feel during the defence?

Min: By the time the defence happened, I had been indoors most of the time for more than two and a half months. It seemed like such a sudden change to wear a suit in the apartment and to communicate for an hour. The defence was intensive, and it took me a while to get into the flow.

If I compared a virtual defence experience with an on-site one, the major difference I felt is that the transition from one activity to another happened swiftly in the virtual setting. For example, before the defence, I entered a ‘room’ and spoke with the pedel. After a chat, suddenly, many video windows appeared on my screen. I saw the committee, all of them, right in front of me. This change of the setting happened in the blink of an eye, unlike physically walking from one room to another.

Another feeling was about staying focused. Looking back, I think that posture mattered. When I sat up straight and saw everyone all at once, it was easier to notice any movement in any given video window. When I leaned forward to look at a specific area on the screen, it was easier to be more focused.  

Rashid: Did the pedel announce “Hora est” and ring the bells of the mace?

Min: Yes, the pedel was still on campus. The activities and procedures for the online defence were the same as on-site. That’s very impressive.

Rashid: Wow, what an experience! And did you have your paranymths to support you or are they not required in the online defence?

Min: They were not required as the ceremony aspect is not quite the same, I guess. But maybe if the candidate asks, it would still be possible to have paranymphs.

Rashid: Are you satisfied with the online defence experience?

Min: It was a unique experience. The committee members were very nice and patient. The pedel was very friendly and thoughtful.

Rashid: How did you celebrate your defence? Did you have a virtual party?

Min: I celebrated with my parents. Also, my supervisors and friends from the research group wrote to me. They made my day. Now I’m having feelings of nostalgia, and have been constantly recalling the memories of the past few years. I couldn’t have made the journey without my supervisors and our research group.

Rashid: And now that you have obtained the “Dr” title, what are you up to?

Min: I’m reading for fun. Also, I’m renovating and decorating my place, which includes experimenting with wallpaper and paint, haha, something I won’t have time for after starting an academic job in China next semester.

Rashid: Thank you so much for this fascinating story, Min! Best of luck in your academic career and the remodelling hobby. Please visit us when the skies open up again and we can have some kaude biertjes en bitterballen in the Pavilion!

Min: Thank you, Rashid!

More information
Min Xu defended her PhD titled “Getting close to the media world: An ethnographic analysis of everyday encounters with the film industry in contemporary China”. Her research interests include media encounters, cultural events, and special interest tourism.