Asleep at The Oral Defense

by George Braine

*Note: All names have been changed.

About a week after I returned to Hong Kong upon delivering a keynote address at a joint China-US conference in Beijing, a new doctoral student from Mainland China walked into my office. When I asked Ming if he had attended the Beijing conference, which incidentally had been held at his university, he said no. Puzzled, because who would avoid an international conference that came to one’s doorstep, I asked why. He mumbled an excuse and I left it at that.

At the English department, doctoral students are paid a stipend. In return, they are affiliated to a professor each semester, and required to do a teaching assistantship (TA) as well as a research assistantship (RA). This involved attending and assisting with course lectures, teaching two small tutorial sections, and helping with research. During his first semester, Ming was assigned to me.

Once, I asked him to photocopy 30 handouts to be distributed to students at the next lecture. Ming turned up, but without the handouts. When asked, he mumbled something incomprehensible, avoiding eye contact. When this happened twice more, I stopped asking him to do any more tasks. I also received complaints from students about his sloppy handling of the two tutorial sections. So, at the end of the semester, I asked the departmental secretary not to assign Ming to me again.

With other professors, too, Ming’s behavior did not change. After a couple of semesters, none wanted him. So, while his doctoral classmates performed their TA and RA duties, Ming had a free ride. To this day, I am not sure if he was incompetent, plain lazy, or an ace con artist who had found an easy way out.

A doctoral student needs four professors on his/her dissertation committee: the thesis supervisor, two committee members, and an external examiner. One day, Ming waked into my office and invited me to be a member on his committee. I inquired about his research topic, and on hearing that it related to memory mapping in vocabulary acquisition, a topic about which I knew nothing, I politely turned him down.

Before long, his thesis supervisor, James, met me, and, as a favor to him, asked if I would oblige. Apparently, Ming’s past sins were catching up on him; no one wanted to be on his committee. After some cajoling, I agreed, telling James that I would not read the entire dissertation. (This happens more often than you’d think.) He said “OK”; all he needed were four warm bodies at the oral defense. (At the English department, only the committee members are allowed to attend an oral defense.)

About two weeks before the scheduled date for the defense, Ming handed me a tome, his dissertation, more than 400 pages of dry, pedantic writing. I was bored reading just the first chapter. But, I would be expected to ask at least one question at the defense, so, after reading the first and last chapters, I formulated a question that would give the impression that I had carefully read the entire dissertation.

The oral defense was scheduled for an afternoon, just after the lunch hour. We met at a conference room. The external examiner, Rupert, was from a smaller, liberal arts university in Hong Kong. Besides me, another professor, Janice, served as a committee member. James, the thesis supervisor, suffered from sleep apnea, and his night sleep being often interrupted, tended to fall asleep at meetings. I, too, was missing my afternoon nap.

Ming began his defense with an oral presentation, droning on in his mumbling voice. True to form, James, who sat nearest to Ming at the long conference table, was soon fast asleep, with his head resting on an outstretched arm. I was sleepy, too, but, with a superhuman effort, managed to stay awake.

When Ming’s presentation ended, James woke up, and asked a few questions. The committee members were next in line, and I made the fatal mistake of telling Janice that she could go ahead with her questions. I was startled when she asked the exact question that I had come prepared with. While Ming mumbled his answer, I quickly glanced through the dissertation and came up with a new question. The day was saved. Rupert, who had come well prepared, wound up the defense with his questions.

But, there was more to come. At that time, the ranking of universities was a hot topic in Hong Kong. Being a small liberal arts institution, with little emphasis on research, Rupert’s university was ranked last in some polls. This stung, and Rupert came to the defense by writing a letter to the local newspaper, criticizing the rankings. But, what matters here is how he concluded the letter. “This year I acted as external examiner of a PhD at, according to the poll, one of the most prestigious universities in Hong Kong. One internal member of the examinations board fell asleep during the student’s presentation and another, to judge from his question, apparently had not read the thesis …”

Guilty as charged!