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Humanizing the Ph.D. for High School Students

My story of defending my Ph.D. dissertation in front of 150 high school students

Sara Roe November 16, 2017

Why would I ever choose to defend my dissertation in front of 150 people? And what if those 150 people were my high school students?

I know, it sounds unusual. And yet, this is exactly how I chose to defend my dissertation. There were many reasons behind my choice that are based on principles that I have held throughout my 20-year teaching career. Most of these years were spent teaching at Watsonville High; however, I have taught at every grade level from preschool to grad school. Of all my educational experiences, my time teaching high school has always been the most rewarding Sara Roe because there is for me a certain excitement in teaching high school. High school students still see the world as theirs for the taking. And yet, many of my students, are often unaware of their amazing potential.

One day, I asked the students in all my classes how many of them knew someone besides a teacher with a degree of any kind. Only a few raised their hands. When I asked them to eliminate siblings, even fewer hands were raised. In a town where the percentage of people with a college degree falls far below the national average, it is often my job to help students to imagine a future for themselves beyond the scope of their reality. It is often the case that my students struggle to see college as within their grasp; the cost of tuition alone is intimidating enough for many students. For others, it's a simple thought..." no one else has done it, why would I?" Thus, changing such ideas has become one of my major challenges. Each year, I am rewarded by a multitude of success stories of former students who are accepted into the top national universities. Unfortunately, each year is also full of stories of students who back down because they are afraid of the cost and doubtful of their own abilities. In some cases, they believe that they don't deserve a place in college.

Those who teach know that an essential part of teaching, is modeling the skills we wish our students to learn. And so, what better opportunity to do so that to model my own formal learning experience all the way through to the end? Thus, my first and most essential reason for defending myself in front of my students was for them. I wanted them to imagine themselves in my place. I wanted to humanize the Ph.D. Even for myself, the Ph.D. seemed far beyond my reach. As I moved closer to that imagined finish line, the idea that I would eventually be known as Dr. Sara Hill Roe seemed impossible. And yet, as I moved closer, I continued to share my process with my students and together we delighted in the excitement. It was important to me for two reasons. Firstly, so that my students could see that higher learning is accessible to them and not beyond their own realities. And secondly, maybe even more importantly, I wanted them to see their teacher as vulnerable. I wanted them to see me challenged and tested. I wanted them to see that just like them, teachers are human; and that not all things come easy to us. I wasn't born a teacher, and I certainly wasn't born with the ability to write a defensible 150-plus page paper about complexity and sustainably flourishing!

As the decision to defend got closer, one student told another teacher that she couldn't go on any field trips until I had secured a date. And, she wasn't even my student. She was simply a student in another class who wanted to see a Ph.D. defense. Incredible, I know. I had never expected the number of students to be so high; however, as the day approached, the number of students continued to increase- to the point where we had to change the venue from the quaint library to the Mello Center. Students were required to watch a video where I explained the basics of the doctoral process. The video also included a simple synopsis of my research so that students would have a basic understanding of my dissertation.

While some students loved the idea that they would know the outcome of my defense before me, others were curious about how I determined my question and the focus of my research. Still, others were interested in how much time it took to get to this point or how I learned Italian. Regardless of their motives, students wanted to be there, and I wasn't willing to turn them away.

When Dr. Jennifer Wells called me a few days before my defense, the conversation went something like this: 

Jennifer asked, "So how many students will be there?"    
"uhmmm... so far about 100"    
a slight pause... "Wow, and how many families?"    
nervously, I replied "Oh... I think about 20"

I know that she must have thought I was exaggerating, and I'm sure at some point, she worried that I had forgotten the purpose of the defense or possibly that the students wouldn't be able to handle such an event. But to be quite honest, I knew that this was the right thing to do. I knew that my school needed to be a part of this event -if only to say that Watsonville High was the first school in our district to host a doctoral defense. But even more than that, I wanted to show off my remarkable school, and I wanted my students to find another reason to be proud of their school. Maybe this was selfish, but I love my community; and I relish opportunities where others can see what we all know to be true -that our students are amazing.

On another level, and maybe the most selfish level, I knew that I would do better with a "live audience." For me, the idea of my work culminating in a Skype conference call in my kitchen while still wearing my pajamas (OK, I'm exaggerating, but this was the extreme I imagined), was somehow unfitting. I knew that for me to perform my best, I would need live humans in the room. Teaching for as long as I have has taught me not to fear a crowd; but instead, to use its energy, to work with it, to build from it. And so, I did.

For me, the defense was a celebration. It was the public proclamation of all that I had learned. It was an opportunity to share with my students, family, and friends all that I have been doing for the past four years. I know that I may be among a very narrow few who would see their defense in such a manner; however, if you were to ask anyone who knows me well, defending my dissertation in such a way, is completely within character for me.

My capacity to make it to this point is because of the supportive community that surrounds me; and so for me, I wanted to show my gratitude by inviting them into this culminating part of the process. And, now that it is behind me, I am even happier with how things turned out. The students were engaged in the event; and just as I had hoped, students are saying "When I get my Ph.D..." thus proving my unusual endeavor was all the more worth the journey.


🔗See Sara Roe's dissertation defense here. 

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