The two weeks leading up to emailing my dissertation to the entire committee plus my outside reader (a professor from a different university who also need to approve your dissertation, a requirement for most humanities Ph.D.s) are a blur. Every waking moment was spent writing, editing, and emailing drafts that never received comments, or even acknowledgement that they had been read. This was followed by proof-reading and re-writing my dissertation entirely on my own. This was nothing new. I had to email my dissertation mostly un-read by my advisor to my entire committee (a scandal in and of itself), because, as my advisor wrote in a terse email to me, they did not have time to read it.
Despite the gross negligence that this brazen declaration signaled, I was relieved by this, because it meant that I would go straight into my defense with a very high chance that Dr. Mao had not discovered what I feared they would.
When the day of my defense came, I got to campus early—far too early—and spent most of my time perched underneath some monument to a long-dead white man while chain-smoking and obsessively texting everyone I knew. It was an unusually warm day, and it felt nice to have actual sunlight on my face. As I began the short walk from the monument to the department, I told myself how stupid I had been. How silly this whole thing was. I thought of Dr. Hortense’s repeated assurances that of course I would pass. I remember thinking, if I pass, I’ll just drop it. Dr. Hortense was right, I need to move on with my life. What can I possibly do about it anyway?
I entered my defense excited and proud to discuss my work. My defense was held in a dark, windowless room in the basement of the department, deceptively called the “graduate student lounge.” I had always hated that room, it contained the tears of too many graduate students to ever be a happy place. Its depressing cinder-block walls and vaguely musty smell only helped solidify that thought. It was the room in which I had practiced and presented my dissertation proposal in front of all the graduate students and most of the faculty. It was fitting that I would end my graduate studies there.
I sat down at the table in the center of the room, nervously pulling out my computer as the committee members stared at me. I then pulled out the introductory statement that I’d spent all night preparing, which I had been told was how defenses usually began. But my statement was never read. I wasn’t given a chance to speak.
Rather, Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao launched into what I have now come to refer to as an intellectual bloodbath. The third person in the room, another professor on my committee, had seemingly walked into the bloodbath as clueless as I had been, or so said their wide-eyed reaction to Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao’s ruthless assessment of my work. Rather than using their own words, they used the detailed letter submitted by my outside reader (which I had not yet seen). But the thing is, they only took her negative comments. Later, after the bloodbath and the resulting tears (which I can proudly say began only once I was safely in bed that evening), I was forwarded the same letter, and in it, there were glowing compliments and approving remarks that had been cruelly left out of Dr. Hortense and Dr. Mao’s citation of it during my defense.
Petty accusations were leveled at me, critiques of why I hadn’t used certain scholars, and even the very foundation of my entire dissertation was brought into question. This is not the unusual part of my story, defenses that revel in ripping apart at least six years’ worth of work without taking the time to acknowledge its value are shockingly common. During my own defense, I was told by Dr. Mao that my work had no validity in the field of contemporary art history, while Dr. Hortense appeared to nod in agreement. Which, if this were indeed the case, why had this not been brought up to me four years prior when I submitted my dissertation proposal? Or, at the very least, before I submitted my dissertation for defense?
To the best of my recollection, Dr. Mao refused to make eye contact with me the entire time they tore apart seven years of my work. The baffling part was that Dr. Hortense seemed equally angry at me, equally suspicious of my clout as an emerging scholar.
After an hour of fending off attacks as politely but as assertively as I could muster, I stumbled out of the room while they deliberated whether or not to pass me. Whether or not I had earned my Ph.D.
Once in the hallway, I sat on a bench usually reserved for naps by hung over undergrads. I have no idea how long I sat there. Everyone had informed me it wouldn’t be long, that the committee members knew how nerve-racking it was to wait, so they usually never left you out there for very long. But it felt like hours. Just as I had begun to spiral into a gloriously huge panic attack, I was called back into the room. An unenthusiastic congrats was mumbled under their breath. I was then told that everyone, including my outside reader, had approved my dissertation. There was, however, a catch. Dr. Mao refused to sign it until I made substantial edits. I now had ¾ of my Ph.D.
When I asked what the edits would consist of, I was given three issues: my introduction was too long, what I had as my first chapter should be made my last chapter, and, most importantly, I needed to completely remove pages 16 to 35 of what was then my first chapter. I think I nodded as the reality of what had just been said quickly sunk in. I knew exactly where the portion that I suspected Dr. Mao of misappropriating: it started on page 17.
I was shocked at how brazen the request was, as if any attempt to masquerade the real reason behind Dr. Mao’s decision not to pass me wasn’t even worth the extra effort it would take.
Dr. Hortense, the professor whom I had trusted until a mere hour ago, tried to follow me out of the room, making small talk with me as I began to digest the situation, as I attempted to somehow grapple with what had just been leveled at me. I knew I had to respond with some of my dignity in-tact. As my head swam in the swamp of it all, and I don’t know exactly what I said to Dr. Hortense. But I do know that I uncharacteristically cut Dr. Hortense off mid-sentence, and said something to the effect that they knew as well as I did that what had just happened was utter bullshit. I then turned away from Dr. Hortense and walked towards the train station.
On the train back into the city, where I had friends waiting to celebrate with me at a bar, I contacted my lawyer.
For Part III of Why I Left Academia, click here