The oral defense is an important component of W609: it is the chance for you to demonstrate what you have learned during the process of writing your thesis and to show that you can engage in academic discussion about the issues that it addresses. Your performance at the defense will play a role in your final grade for the project. The defense consists of two parts: a ten-minute presentation and a forty-five minute Question and Answer session. At the conclusion of this discussion, the committee will ask you to leave the room for a few minutes while they discuss the final grade for the project.  They will then invite you back into the room and inform you of the grade.

The Presentation: In your presentation, you should offer a brief, three or four sentence summary of the project before discussing the following: the genesis of the project, what you learned from it, and how you would complicate, enrich and/or extend its content if you were to continue working on it. Here are some questions that your thesis committee will expect you to address, though not necessarily in this order:

  • What was the intellectual inspiration for the project?
  • What is the relationship between your project and the larger field? What contribution does your project make to this field, and why does that contribution matter?
  • How did your approach to the topic change over the course of the project? Why did it change?  Here, you might focus on different research strategies that you learned to employ and/or particular works, concepts, or techniques that you discovered during the course of the project that influenced your thinking.
  • What were the most difficult intellectual hurdles that you had to overcome in completing this project? How did you overcome them?
  • If you were going to continue to work on the project, what areas would choose to expand or revise? How would you do so? How might these additions/revisions enrich the overall project?

You should consult with your thesis director about the content of your presentation.

This is a formal presentation, so you should bring an outline of your remarks or notecards from which to speak.  You should also practice this presentation before giving it at the defense to make sure that it doesn’t exceed the time limit.

The Q&A: Your presentation will be followed by a 45-minute question and answer session, during which the members of your committee will ask you questions that extend from the project and your presentation about it. The goal of this Q&A is for you to engage in a sustained academic conversation about your work.  A really good Q&A is one where very few formal questions have to be asked because there is a lot of back-and-forth between the candidate and the committee. Here are some suggestions for the Q&A:

  • Give concrete examples to illustrate your answers. Often, an example of a specific character, concept, or plot point will serve as the grounds for more discussion.
  • Do not be afraid to ask a committee member for clarification. You want to understand the question before you answer it.
  • Keep your answers relatively concise. In a conversation, you don’t want someone to hog the floor, right? But you also don’t want your conversational partner to answer in monosyllables.
  • Try asking the committee members questions as well. An insightful question is as important to a good intellectual exchange as an insightful comment.