Vivat Academia!

Although I’m still many mountains away from the terrifying moment that must be the Viva Voce, it was really worthwhile going along to yesterday’s discussion about what exactly is involved on the day. Some of MMU’s InfoComms PhD candidates have Vivas a few weeks from now, with others having only just “defended” successfully – meaning there were plenty of questions and stories (some of the horror variety) to share. What do the examiners expect of you? How should you prepare? What are the negative and positive sides of presenting your thesis? As someone pointed out, the Viva is a chance to discuss your work with people who have actually read it – in detail. They have probably even made notes in the margins! So overall, as well as inevitable terror, you should be pleased that at least two senior academics can reference your paragraph numbers and summarise whole chapters. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that PhD candidates in Manchester don’t have to wear colour-coded carnations and a subfusc as they do in certain UK Universities.

I was fascinated to learn from Emma-Reeta, a recently successful Finnish InfoComms candidate, that in her country (as well as in Sweden and probably elsewhere), the Viva Voce is a very public event and actually, a celebration. You might even end up with the whole thing appearing on You Tube!

Scholars in pub(lic)

I can’t imagine that happening in the UK, can you? It got me thinking (well, okay, got me thinking after our trip to the pub) about a question very important to my own infant thesis – what do we now define as the “Public Sphere” and how does it relate to the world of the University? The concept of the Public Sphere is most closely associated with Jürgen Habermas (and was popularised after the English translation of his Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit in 1989). In it he critiques the notion of a public/private divide with a focus on the “bourgeois” coffee houses of the 18th century – though, as he makes extremely clear, its roots go back much further, to the Enlightenment in fact.  Naturally back then it was structured very differently, reflecting a different set of influences and priorities: most probably more democratic ones, more concerned as political thinkers of the day were with reason rather than commerce. Still, in essence, whatever period we consider, Public and Private have always been abstract, flexible and porous.

Maybe the pub is a poorly lit coffee house...

Many questions are being asked right now about the future of the Public Sphere which bring these ideas back into focus – from its increasing commodificiation and role in entertaining rather than informing private citizens, to the possibility of different systems of socio-cultural and political participation. This is most obvious if we think about mass media (including social media) as the pre-dominant forum for public dialogue today. Zizi Papacharissi borrows from theories of architecture to write convincingly of “the spatial effects of convergent technology on place.” Importantly, she states that “unless these spaces bear distinct connections to the systemic core of democratic institutions, their ability to effect institutional change is compromised.” However, as well as looking at what these spaces mean for

  • Overtly political groups such as environmental activists, party- affiliated or single-issue campaigners
  • Minority or “disenfranchised” communities, and inevitably,
  • Consumer demographics or “market segments”

I think it is very much worth addressing what the changes and tensions between and within the Public and Private Spheres mean for the Scholar, not least to avoid a kind of artificial divide whereby academics are only visible or valued in so far as they contribute to the generation of money for business, or are on-hand to offer “expert comment” to the press.

To me, the idea of having to defend my thesis in public would be pretty scary. But if I imagine presenting and discussing my work in front of friends, family, loved ones, and anyone else interested in the topic – as well as having a big party afterwards – it seems like a valuable and special way of being recognised and welcomed into the public realm of academia. Beyond personal concerns, it is surely a great chance for Universities to make “visible” the effort involved in getting a PhD to people who may not ever want to do one themselves, and (important right now) who maybe aren’t always sure if Higher Education is something worth funding.

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One response to “Vivat Academia!”

  1. Jemster says :

    All drinks £1! Brilliant. And the blonde girl in your photo is wearing a necklace dead like the one I bought you! x

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