Defenses during Covid: Traditions and pandemics

Sirkku Ruokkeinen defended her doctoral dissertation, Historical appraisal analysis: evaluation of the book in sixteenth-century England, on Saturday 4 December 2021. The defense is a culmination of years of work, and as such, often a stressful event. While the dissertation itself is naturally the focus of the years prior, the event itself has its own traditions and challenges, especially during covid. Below, Sirkku Ruokkeinen writes about defenses, traditions, and her experiences thereof.

My defense in December 2021 was the sixth the University of Turku English department has had during covid times. The pandemic influences any events at the university, and the defenses are no exception, so there were some minor changes to the defense to follow the University Covid guidelines.

Preceding the defense, there is a long list of practical matters to tend to. The candidate must have the dissertation printed and distributed. The press releases are written by the candidate and delivered to the university communication services. The electronics and connections in the space reserved for the defense have to be checked. There is also some limited communication between the candidate and the opponent – in this case Prof. Claudia Claridge of Universität Augsburg – about the practicalities such as setting up the defense practice Zoom event and the defense Zoom event itself. The opponent also needs to be informed of any changes to the dissertation made based on the pre-examiner comments, so that they know how the issues pointed out have been resolved, and may address them further in the defense with the full knowledge of what the candidate has said on the topic.

The defense itself took place through Zoom, but also had open admittance for a live audience. This two-media aspect brought its own challenges. For example, the traditional formulae of the lectio praecursoria and defense invitations had to be well thought out, with special consideration given to who is being addressed: the audience in the room, the audience at home, or the opponent in zoom. Issues of digital and technical nature had to be considered in advance, so as to be prepared to fix any issues as quickly as possible. I was fortunate to have knowledge and experience on my side, as the custos and marshal (Prof. Matti Peikola and Dr Janne Skaffari) had participated in several pre- and post-covid defenses and could advise me on best practices.

The defense is a rather formal affair, which I always felt was a quite sharp contrast to the generally laid-back atmosphere in the Finnish universities. This, of course, reflects the importance of the event as the threshold to the highest available academic degree. The customs are largely dictated by the university. For example, the presence of a custos, who acts as the master of ceremonies, is degreed by the University guidelines. Other customs are more specific to the department or school, such as agreements about the dress code and the setup of the auditorium.

There are some traditions for the evening party as well. The karonkka – a party thrown by the candidate in celebration of the opponent – is traditional in all Finnish universities. Unfortunately, my opponent could not be present, and hence no karonkka in her honor could be arranged. Instead, I enjoyed some bubbly after the defense with my closest colleagues and friends. Although the karonkka could not be arranged due to the present situation, I was able to enjoy the English department traditions. Firstly, I received a most magnificent new cover design for my dissertation from the department. The new design is made with one goal in mind: to joke around with the doctor in spe under the guise of popularizing the research. The alternative covers have been prepared for all new doctors within the department since 1983 – a tradition that began with Professor Emeritus Risto Hiltunen’s cover. I also got to enjoy Historical Appraisal Analysis: THE MOVIE, prepared by the Philological Colloquium. This tradition, particular to the philologists of the department, involves the preparation of a play or other new rendition of materials found within the dissertation.

All in all, although the pandemic offered some complications to the arrangements, the event itself went well, the celebration afterwards was lovely. Most importantly, the evaluation committee recommended that the dissertation be awarded the grade “pass”, and I could begin my Christmas holidays.

Text by Sirkku Ruokkeinen

Photos by Janne Skaffari

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