More than three dozen people – including a honors research methods class from another college at Marquette – came to a large conference room in Johnston Hall to watch me defend my master's degree thesis, "Journalism and Community: A Case Study of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service." I had witnessed about five or six thesis defenses in the Diederich College of Communication since entering graduate school in fall 2010. But I was beyond nervous or anxious. The outcome would mark my biggest watershed day in about 11 years.
Sure, the only three people I really had to worry about were my thesis committee: John Pauly, Ph.D., the chairman; Ana Garner, Ph.D. and Erik Ugland, Ph.D., who was listening via speakerphone given he is in the Czech Republic on a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. But my wife was also taking it in telephonically from Atlanta – and Editor-in-Chief Sharon McGowan and several others invested in the news service were in the room. Otherwise, no pressure at all.
"This a bigger group than we usually have for thesis defenses," Dr. Pauly told the audience just before introducing me, "and this is in part because this is a community-based project. And so as the university looks ahead to more forms of community engagement, I think this is an interesting example for us of some things that we're probably going to be thinking about in the future, perhaps, (and we) wanted to give a chance to people who were touched by this project or involved in it one or another to be here and to hear a little bit about it."
Dr. Pauly set the ground rules: My initial presentation was to be about 15 to 20 minutes, with up to 20 more for questions of me from the audience. He would then ask the visitors to leave the room so the committee could continue the thesis examination with me alone. Well, my presentation lasted a bit longer than 20 minutes, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. I appreciated the audience's thoughtful and caring questions about the thesis and, more importantly, the news service's outcomes and future. One in particular, from Tim Cigelske, the university's director of social media, asked to what extent others not present would get to see my research. (Thanks to the video skills of another student, Arthur Jones, my defense is here in its entirety.)
"My chairman and I come from different places on this," I said. "No we don't," Dr. Pauly interjected, to everyone's amusement. He insisted the only difference is "the thesis comes first" – that is, abiding by time-honored rituals associated with earning a master's degree. Yes, sir, I replied, but as I told those assembled, while appreciating the opportunities for having my work published in academic journals – see this blog post, "Moving Closer to the Academic Light" – my hope is to transform my thesis from a PDF to an eBook that can be accessed via iTunes.
Truly supportive of my post-thesis ambitions, Dr. Pauly told Cigelske that with respect to "what we (in academe) do with theses and dissertations, I think there are pieces of those projects that we could make more visible to other people, so maybe this would be a good test case."
Time will surely tell about all of that. In a text afterward, Brooke assured me that I did not embarrass her. For my part, I woke up the next morning ready to defend my thesis again.