Apres the viva! by Paul Breen

Paul Breen posted this in the old blog on November 16th 2014. I have now copied it over so that we can all benefit from his insight and wisdom. Thank you, Paul!

Hello everyone,

Having had my viva on Friday, and passing with minor corrections, I wanted to share some ideas that might benefit other people – following a fine tradition that has developed here and continued along the way, most recently with Mariam’s posting of 40 questions which I drew on in my own preparation.

The title of my thesis is ‘Teachers in Transition: developing actions, knowledge and practice in the EAP classroom’ and is a case study discussing the developments that arise in teachers’ knowledge, action, and specific professional practice as they integrate and embed technology in their teaching. I was fortunate in having Gary Motteram and Diane Slaouti as my supervisors through this research journey and getting extra advice along the way from other lecturers, and doctoral students, both past and present.

First I want to say that my experience of the viva as a whole was enjoyable, well worth the preparation that it entailed, and suitably challenging to give me the confidence to go on and share my research findings with others. The session lasted for over two hours, though it felt like half that time for me – and possibly twice that length of time for my supervisor Gary Motteram in the corner.

To begin with, the first stage of preparation is to leave aside the thesis for a few weeks, even a whole month, after completion. Use that time to read up on the newest literature, check out blogs, and videos – lighten the mood around your study (e.g. I found this excellent video on TPACK which was part of my theoretical framework – http://www.ttf.edu.au/show-video.html?resid=1383 ).

The reason I say this is that if you are like me you will have spent much of the past year focusing solely on the presentation and structuring of your own ideas, but once you get the thesis completed you are going to have to go out and share your ideas with the rest of the interested world. This means that you need a sense of what is going on out there, so I read up on what was happening not just in the academic literature but also on blogs, youTube, professional and personal websites etc. That should also give you scope to then talk about the future when you come towards the end of your viva. I have to confess that I wasn’t particularly good when answering questions about future directions because I was so focused on talking about the thesis that I was caught off guard a little.

Anyway that’s jumping forward a bit. Once you leave aside your thesis and come back to it, you will be able to see things from a fresh perspective. You will be able to see potential areas of questioning. Ask yourself these questions which did actually come up in my viva on Friday:

• How would you describe your thesis in a nutshell?

• Why did you decide to present the literature in the order that you have chosen?

• Can you summarise one section of the literature review?

• Are you aware of any significant theorists or practitioners that you have excluded or could have included? Why did you make this choice?

(Here, you should be honest – for me it was often a case of making editing decisions that were carefully considered, but in hindsight were maybe too rash or leaving too much of an onus on the part of the reader to assume my knowledge of particular areas I had chosen to exclude)

• Why did you choose your methodology and methods, and could you have done things differently?

• Did you consider other theoretical frameworks and what were the reasons for rejecting these or not pursuing them further?

• If you had chosen an alternative theoretical framework, how different might the outcomes have been?

• Why have you chosen to present your findings or the story of your research in this manner?

• How would you describe your overall contribution?

• Why do you feel that this contribution is significant, and what makes it original considering what work is being done in this field at the present time?

And then on to the question of ‘Where do you go from here?’

SO – you have now re-read your thesis and considered these questions. I have a further suggestion that some people may benefit from and others may see as a little bit crazy. I actually recorded myself reading the various chapters of my thesis and then played this back again to listen to during train journeys etc and found this helpful in some ways, though most helpful when just sitting down listening to a particular part with no distractions at all. For example, I sat down and played back the Methodology chapter a couple of days before the viva, and asked myself how that sounded to an outsider. It meant that I knew the methodology literature inside out but I didn’t get asked any questions on that because the methodology chapter was really strong anyway.

It’s the areas of potential weakness that your examiners will probe, from my experience and what I have read in the literature. It’s not going to be a test of you showing all your knowledge, or necessarily getting the opportunity to concentrate on the bits you feel most comfortable with, as I would have relished the opportunity to talk about insider research, which I have been developing ever since a mock viva/end of year review in 2013. I was equipped with everything from double edged swords (Mercer, 2007) to elaborate appendices, so as to protect myself from a potential Achilles heel in the research, but I guess the examiners could see that.

I had put a huge amount of effort into showing that my study was systematic, that methods were carefully considered, that I knew the strengths and limitations of the case study approach I had chosen, and that I would have relished the chance to talk about examples of my coding, and the process of thematic analysis. There was though one slight chink in the armour that I myself identified to Gary, my supervisor, in the days before the viva. To make room for all the theory of the methodology and the practice of the methods (interviews, focus groups, observations, analysis of learning materials & diary notes) I skimmed over the choice of final cases.

So guess what – sure enough where there was a glint of exposed flesh beneath the armour, the examiners caught sight of it. I got asked about my choice of cases and how I reduced them in number from nine to a final three. I have to confess my answer came across as elusive when actually it should have been straightforward and circumstance, alongside quality of data, shaped the final choice of my three cases. Simple – so don’t waffle like me. The examiners said that it makes it looks as if you have something to hide. Be truthful!

Finally, a suggestion that you should heed but not misinterpret is to go with your gut instincts, in juxtaposition with the advice of supervisors, and not be too modest in asserting what your contributions are. I downplayed mine a little, and was corrected on this. Why did I downplay them? Well I suppose I wanted to be cautious and not self-congratulatory. I also didn’t assert my contributions enough in discussions with my supervisors and thus didn’t use their expert knowledge to practice fighting my corner strongly enough. I think it wasn’t really until my last mock viva with Gary that I was able to sit back and say no, I don’t agree with x or y, I actually believe it should be z and I can use this from my thesis to support those arguments. And I can’t know what Gary felt, and wouldn’t presume to, but I imagine that he was far more confident in my abilities to defend my work after my mock viva performance than a year ago when I had my annual review, and didn’t really discuss my work with the same passion.

So again use the opportunity of the mock viva to practice defending your work with conviction and vigour. I get the feeling that’s what our supervisors want us to do. In fact it is absolutely what they want us to do. After all if we don’t and we can’t fight our corner with conviction we won’t make it through the viva.

Finally when it’s all over I recommend the Sand Bar!

Good luck then Achilleas, Eljee, and Lou who are the next 3 candidates in the hot seat. If you have any questions I am happy to answer them, and hope there are some ideas here that might be of use to you now, and other students in the future.