What do you do on the morning of your final exam for 23rd grade?
I awoke around 7am on January 31 in Stellenbosch, showered, and dressed for the defense. My day was complicated by the fact that my scheduled departure from Cape Town was that evening, so I had to check out of my hotel room in the morning or else be charged for another night. The hotel staff graciously allowed me to leave my (obscenely huge) suitcase and other items in the office while I was on campus that day.
After breakfast, I set out on my walk to the Faculty of Theology, which is about a 10-minute walk from where I stayed. January is of course the height of summer in South Africa, but the weather had been relatively mild all week. Not this day–it already felt hotter at 9:30am than it had at 1pm on Wednesday when I was on the bay. I believe it ended up around 37ºC (98ºF for us ‘Merkins) at mid-day that Friday.
I settled into a study carrel in the library. How does one study for a dissertation exam? I took solace in two bits of advice from friends: first, the student’s fate is usually decided before the exam, so I just had to be knowledgeable enough to show that I hadn’t plagiarized the whole thing; and second, no one knows more about this subject than me–that’s the whole point of a dissertation. So I spent the hour enjoying the aircon (AC for us Yanks), hydrating, praying, reading over my brief remarks that I had prepared (about seven minutes’ worth), and glancing through the sections that I had guessed that my particular reviewers would focus in on (my guesses turned out to be wrong).
At 10:45, I powdered my nose, then made my way to Professor Jonker’s office. From there, we went to the same examination room where I had defended my MTh thesis two years earlier. We were greeted by Nico Koopman, dean of the theology faculty, and Hendrik Bosman, the internal examiner. I was quite nervous, as you can imagine, but as the other faculty trickled in, they were all very encouraging and comforting. I recalled to mind that my fate was probably already decided, and I just had to avoid screwing it up.
Technological difficulties gave me something of an advantage. Professor Gerrie Snyman of UNISA Pretoria was on the phone immediately, but the secretary had difficulty reaching Professor Mark Boda (McMaster) in Ontario, where it was 4am. Though the tension built a little while we delayed ten minutes trying to get Professor Boda on the line, Professor Koopman decided to begin, provided I could give a short recap when we made the connection. After prayer by Professor Jonker, I gave my seven-minute introduction, whereupon we were interrupted by the secretary who was prepared to patch Professor Boda into the conference room. I certainly benefited from the ensuing ten-minute break–I cleared my head, joked around a little while the faculty chatted with one another.
Once we got into the Q&A period, it was “Game On!” I discovered that it’s very flattering and satisfying to have a room full of smart people–experts in my field–ask me questions about my work that they had read and appreciated. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was fun, but it was definitely satisfying–especially when I felt like I had nailed an answer to a challenging question.
Because of the delay, I think the questioning period ended up being shorter than usual, which was just fine–less time for me to say something stupid. Professor Koopman excused me to the adjacent room. A couple of minutes later, Professor Jonker joined me while the faculty deliberated. After about ten minutes, the session ended and Professors Koopman and Bosman came out to congratulate me. We then went over the minor corrections that would be required to the satisfaction of Professor Jonker, not the rest of the faculty (the so-called “B option,” which is what I was hoping for).
And, I was done!