Doctor in spe Sara Norja defended her doctoral dissertation, Alchemy in the Vernacular: An Edition and Study of Early English Witnesses of The Mirror of Alchemy, on Thursday 27 May 2021. Here, she writes about the viva and the days leading up to it.
Due to the pandemic the viva was on Zoom, so the arrangements were a little different from usual. I wasn’t able to have a karonkka – the traditional academic afterparty following a viva. I can’t deny I would have loved to have one, but having fewer things to organise before the viva was also a relief, as the week of my defence was a busy one.
On Monday we had a Zoom rehearsal in the Educarium lecture hall where the viva would be broadcast from. Professor Matti Peikola and Dr Janne Skaffari (my PhD supervisors) were there with me in person, as Matti was the custos and Janne was the marshal (airut) in charge of Zoom proceedings during the viva. We had a short Zoom call with my opponent Professor Peter J. Grund (University of Kansas), and sorted out all the technical matters. It was a relief to see the room I would defend my dissertation in, and to make sure that the connections all worked!
On Thursday 27th, the day of the viva, the nerves hit me. It was good that the viva was as late as 16.00 (due to the time difference with Kansas), because despite the gnawing feeling in my belly, I even managed to eat lunch before it. However, once I was actually in Educarium and the viva was about to commence, I calmed down. The final minutes before turning on the video and sound on Zoom were the longest I’ve ever known, though!
The custos Professor Matti Peikola and I sat down in front of the camera, facing the lecture hall with six other people in it (our technical support Satu Koivumäki, Janne, and four of my family members). Quite different from the experience of sitting in front of a bigger live audience! However, I knew there were lots of people watching through Zoom, so the audience online was huge. I tried not to concentrate on that, though, but to focus on my opponent, who I could see on the screen set up opposite me.
I felt unreal – was this major event actually happening after seven years of working on my dissertation? But once the viva officially started with the customary opening words, and I began giving my lectio praecursoria (the traditional speech given by the PhD candidate at the start), everything started to flow. I gave my lectio, and asked Professor Grund to present his criticisms of my dissertation. He gave his opening statement, and then we proceeded into the questions.
I had been told previously that once the defence actually starts, it can be a delightful experience as well as a scary one. This was certainly true for me. Professor Grund asked some pretty tough questions, but I discovered that it was incredibly rewarding and fun to answer them and to discuss my dissertation with him. He was the best opponent I could have hoped for. By the time Professor Grund had given his concluding statement and the viva was over, I was fizzing with excitement and pent-up nerves. The defence was concluded by the custos, and we could proceed to congratulations.
Even though the pandemic meant I couldn’t have a proper karonkka, we rounded off the evening with a lovely outdoors event with a small number of my colleagues from the Department. Some excellent traditions were upheld despite the pandemic, and overall the day will stand out as a landmark event in my life.
Text by Sara Norja
Photos by Janne Skaffari and Mari-Liisa Varila