I’m happy to report that I successfully defended my PhD dissertation on December 20 at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam. I’m jet lagged and a little worse for wear (more on that below) but happy to be finished the six year odyssey that was my dissertation. So, in my first official post as Dr. Mullin, I’ll catch you up on the events of last week.
Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Granted, December is not the best time of the year to go (it’s prettier in the spring when the tulips are in bloom) but the scenery, decorated with Christmas lights, is still wonderful. The old-world architecture, canals, and beautiful women riding bicycles all contribute to a very charming ambiance. It’s not just the pretty girls who ride bicycles though. Everybody does. It’s less about green-consciousness, I’m told, and more about practicality. It’s just a good way to get from point A to point B. The way they ride is interesting too. You don’t see the spandex-clad, aerodynamic helmet-wearing, “hard-core” cycling enthusiasts that you see on the streets in big North American cities. Cycling is a lot more civilized in Holland. People wear their business clothes, no helmet, and ride up-right leisure bikes, not streamlined speed bikes made out of titanium, or graphite, or whatever space-age material they make bikes from nowadays. In Amsterdam, it all has a much more organic feel to it. The urban design is different too. Bicycles, cars, streetcars, and pedestrians all co-exist and mingle, seemingly without incident. What looks like pandemonium to North American eyes yields a high-level order. Chaos theory in action!
I promise to get to the defense, but the travelogue is fun and helps set the stage. My supervisor and I arrived on the morning of Dec 15, having lost a night of sleep because of the time change. The VU had booked us into a nice hotel overlooking the Vondelpark. The first day was lost to jet lag, but the next day we walked around the park and visited the Rijksmuseum, home of the Dutch masters (Rembrandt, Van Dijk, and Vermeer among others). One of the fun things about Amsterdam is that you can see high culture and low culture in the same day. The red light district is within walking distance of the cultural center of the city, so after dinner, we took a stroll through Amsterdam’s seedy underbelly.
Now, I like to think I’m not a prude and politically I have libertarian tendencies; I think several “vices” should be legalized. I would argue, for example, that having prostitution and cannabis out in the open and regulated makes a lot more sense than forcing them underground. The Dutch agree and they don’t let morality get in the way of pragmatic politics. Having said that, however, the red light district is still seedy. It’s a surreal experience to walk through it. It’s like an adult amusement park and the women are the playthings. I’m not claiming any moral high ground here — as a heterosexual male, I’m aware of the fact that I routinely objectify women — but this seemed somehow different than the everyday, run-of-the-mill objectification to which our post-Christian culture has become accustomed. Seeing women in a window, like meat in a butcher shop, seems, well, wrong. Maybe I am a prude after all. I know that one could argue that these women choose this profession — in the Netherlands it seems unlikely that it’s economic desperation — and that there are benefits to legalization for the sex worker, such as safer working conditions. That’s true, and again, in principle I’m a libertarian on this issue. But walking through the red light district had the unexpected effect of helping me appreciate some feminist arguments that I’d shrugged off before — probably because I’m a heterosexual, objectifying male who’s part of the problem. At least I’m conscious of that.
We continued through the red light district. Some of the hookers smiled and waved at us, others seemed completely disengaged, texting or reading magazines; just another day at the office. The cannabis smoke was heavy in the air too. There were a number of young British men — the kind you could imagine breaking a cricket bat over somebody’s head at a soccer game — filing out of one of these “coffee shops” as they are euphemistically known. That surprised me, because I thought the Dutch government had tightened the laws to discourage drug tourism. I thought you had to be a Dutch citizen to smoke up, but maybe the law isn’t really enforced. I looked in the window of one of these shops. There was a menu on the wall — like at McDonald’s — that told you the price per joint. They also had flavors and, if you were a real connoisseur of the ganga, a listing of the THC content. Since marijuana is not my vice of choice, I moved on.
I’m not sure if there’s a lesson to be learned here. I found it interesting that cannabis use is out in the open, yet they still use euphemisms like “coffee shop.” (Traveler’s tip: if you want coffee in Amsterdam, go to a “cafe.” Good to know.) The prostitution is in the open too, although the act itself, of course, takes place behind closed doors. I suppose as a North American — who perhaps is more of a prude and moralist than I thought — I’m in favor of Holland’s liberal policies, but would like to keep these vices out of public view as much as possible. I’m also less comfortable with the side effects of the policies — the seediness, the undesirable clientele, etc. — but it isn’t clear to me that we can have one without the other. It also struck me how much the history of the Netherlands mirrors my own personal history. We both share a puritanical, Calvinist background which we’ve sloughed off. Nevertheless, there are traces of that past everywhere and, despite embracing more liberal, secular attitudes, there’s a sense in which we’re still very conservative. This is the paradoxical impression I get from the Dutch and so I feel a certain kinship with them.
The next day (Monday if you’re keeping track) we took the train to Utrecht to visit my supervisor’s mentor. After lunch, we explored the town a bit. I really liked Utrecht; it had a charming old-world feel to it. It was both similar to and different from Amsterdam. We visited the Dom Church (St. Martin’s Cathedral), a remarkable building begun in 695 (that’s not a typo; six, not sixteen). It always amazes me how old these European cathedrals are. My other impression of Utrecht was that it’s a well-read town. There were a number of delightful small bookshops and I noticed that they proudly displayed philosophy books in the window. That’s almost unheard of here. Fifty Shades of Grey, yes. The Collected Essays of Bertrand Russell, no. I’ve blogged before about the lowly place allotted philosophy in our big North American bookstores. This was a refreshing change.
Tuesday, we were off to meet my co-promoter at the VU and get briefed on the protocols for the ceremony. The way the Europeans do it, it’s a very formal affair. They wear their academic regalia — and I had to rent a tux, white tie and tails — and there’s a woman with a scepter who keeps order. The scepter has these jangly things on it that sound like bells when she walks and I couldn’t help but think of T’Pau in the Star Trek episode Amok Time. Y’know, the one where Kirk and Spock fight in ceremonial Vulcan combat? The whole ceremony already has a medieval feel to it and I half expected trial by ordeal. It turns out that it was quite the ordeal, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Following the meeting, we went to rent the tux. I’d skipped lunch, and by the time dinner came around, surprisingly, I wasn’t hungry. I chalked it up to nerves. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be just nerves.
That night, I was sick, complete with nausea, vomiting, the runs, fever, the whole nine yards. The next day, I was even worse. Whatever it was — stomach virus probably — it hit me like a ton of bricks. On Wednesday, I was weak, dehydrated, and could barely move from my bed to the bathroom — and it was a small hotel room. As you can imagine, I was worried. Unless I felt significantly better in 24 hours, I wouldn’t be in any shape to defend my dissertation. I couldn’t stand, much less think on my feet fast enough to field the questions of the four European scholars who would be my opponents. My supervisor asked me if I could go through with it. I knew that postponing it would be difficult; some of the opponents had flown in for the occasion too. The VU had also put up a lot of money for this trip and I didn’t know if they’d reimburse us if we had to scratch and try again in the spring. Also, I had a lot personally invested in this, and was determined to do it. Fortunately, I was able to sleep a lot that day — we’d left a day open — and my supervisor, who went above and beyond his normal duties, bought me some Gatorade so I could replace my electrolytes. I took Tylenol and Gravol and hoped for the best.
The fever broke sometime during the night. The morning of the defense, I was feeling better, though nowhere near full capacity. By the time of the defense, I hadn’t eaten for 24 hours and what I had eaten, I’d expelled from my body in very unpleasant ways. But I knew that if I could muster the strength to stand and the mental clarity to answer the questions, I could make it through. Luckily, the defense was only scheduled for an hour, at which point the beadle — the lady with the scepter — would declare an end to the proceedings. Other than my supervisor, nobody knew I was under the weather — I didn’t want to elicit sympathy — but the opponents were all very encouraging. They told me that they had enjoyed my dissertation and were looking forward to welcoming me into their ranks once I had successfully defended it. What happened next is a bit of a blur. The questions were ones I had prepared for, and most of the opponents were gracious insofar as they asked questions that would give me an opportunity to expound on my thesis. Nobody asked a ‘gotcha’ type question designed to trip me up. I was thankful for that, since I wasn’t in shape for verbal sparring. I had been advised by my supervisor to avoid that in any event. As he knows, I can be contentious and tend to fight fire with fire when debate heats up. However, he instructed me that European intellectuals, especially those in my position, conduct themselves in a more deferential mode. So I went with that advice and simply responded to the questions graciously. It was all I could have done under the circumstances anyways.
The jury wasn’t out long, and they awarded me the title “Doctor of Philosophy.” I signed my name in the book and they presented me with an ornate scroll which had my name and new title inscribed on it, complete with Latin script and a ribbon and wax seal. They congratulated me and, despite being sick, I still felt good. That was it. It was over. The culmination of six years of my adult life all over in an hour. On the one hand, it was a little anticlimactic, but on the other hand, I didn’t care. I was finished. I was a doctor! To celebrate, we all went out to dinner. I still wasn’t very hungry, but I ate and drank a little; it’s a once in a lifetime experience after all. We talked philosophy at dinner, of course, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t have to be quite so sharp. The pressure was off.
The experience, on the whole, was a good one. I wish I could’ve been at my best, but at least I can honestly say that I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently. Also, because I was more worried about fainting or puking than I was about knowing the material, it had the effect of freeing my mind. I wasn’t stressed about the actual subject matter — I hadn’t had time to think about it the preceding day — so I was able speak extemporaneously. In other words, the illness prevented me from over-thinking, which I have a tendency to do. If there’s a silver lining, I suppose that’s it. I was also impressed with the European scholars I met there. Absent was the arrogant one-upmanship that often characterizes meetings of academics in North America. These fellows were real gentlemen scholars and, despite the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, genuinely down to earth people. Throughout the process, I caught a rare glimpse of the way the academy could be, the way it should be. Every once and a while the ideals of scholarship and humanity which the academy stands for come a little closer to realization before they get lost again in politics and other petty concerns. But at least there’s a glimmer of hope sometimes.
So, was it all worth it? It’s tough to answer that question. Although I’m now a doctor, not much has changed. I have the title, but my situation is the same. The academy is still much less than the ideal it should be, there are still systemic injustices, and the job market is still abysmal. But for now, I’m not going to worry about that. For now, I’m just going to relish in the accomplishment for a while. I’ll deal with all that other stuff next year.