Memes and Mimosas: Defending During COVID-19

This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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I’m not exactly proud that my first thought when I heard about the COVID-related closures was “oh no, I’ll have to cancel my hair appointment on the day of my dissertation defense” but I’m writing this in the spirit of goodwill and honesty. I am twenty-seven and afraid of hot things: I thought having someone do my hair (which I never learned for myself) would be both a calming pre-defense activity and a suit of armor. I’m either a social butterfly or a sacrificial lamb—or perhaps both—and thus invited practically the entire department to my defense. My amazing, exacting advisor liked the diss, so I believed I would pass: why not let everyone see what a defense looked like? I circulated this invite to my friends, spending [redacted amount of time] recreating Microsoft Word Art from the early 2000s. May I present my magnum opus:

We never returned from spring break, and the closures trickled in.

First, my out-of-town committee members switched to virtual call-ins.

Then, perhaps, we could meet in groups of ten? Oops, campus shut down.

Maybe just myself and the two local professors, in a room? No dice.

Okay, maybe just my advisor and myself in a room. Sitting far apart. Off campus. Please don’t make me conference call my defense. Please.

Boom. Lockdown for the city of Columbia. Hoo boy. All this in two weeks’ time.

Okay DeVelvis. Time to regroup.

It took some convincing, but I persuaded my advisor that Zoom wouldn’t crash mid-defense. The compromise: I only invite a handful of friends to avoid overwhelming the call and causing any technical difficulties. This one hurt. I nagged the department into buying Zoom Premium so that we could host as many floating heads as we could—I wanted everyone to tune in, mute their mics, and just nod at the things I said like bobble-heads. You know, moral support.

In retrospect, I’m quite relieved that I only invited four people—my cohort—to join.

In some ways, COVID-19 helped me in the days leading up to my defense. I am incredibly privileged with an able body, a healthy family, and a salaried spouse. Yet even so, a country scrambling for respirators and masks made my dissertation look like very, very small potatoes. How could I spend my emotional real estate fretting over this when someone’s loved ones were dying? (How do I even have the energy to write this today?) There was no time to stress.

On the day of my defense, I did hair and makeup for the first time in months. I put on a dress, which allowed me to keep my “no real pants during quarantine” streak alive. (Honestly, can you believe this LA Times guy?!)

My mother-in-law, who lives down the street, came over and sat very far away from me, as was allowed at the time. My wonderful scientist husband worked the night shift so that he, with his mother, could awkwardly sit and watch me get grilled for two hours. He kept refilling my water cup with a single-minded intensity as if he were my boxing coach that needed to keep me hydrated. I don’t know better people—though I do wish they were a bit quieter as they set up my balloon surprise in the next room DURING my defense. At least they made sure that the dog stayed outside. I was already traumatized enough by her decision to eat an entire sandwich on camera when I was teaching my first online discussion section.

I strongly believe that we had technical difficulties because I explicitly promised my advisor that we would not. And, of course, it was my advisor’s connection that constantly wavered. Eventually we decided to leave his webcam running just in case, mute his audio, and have him talk and listen through my speaker phone, which I placed close to my laptop. The combined mental powers of four award-winning professors and four PhD candidates was apparently not enough to realize, however, that when I stepped out of the room, leaving my phone so that my advisor could communicate, there was no way to tell me to return to said room. Later, I discovered several texts from a committee member, telling me to “return to the room.” Oops.

Those capers aside, the defense went well. The crosstalk was inevitable but minimal. My committee did not hold back, asking me incisive questions and providing critical feedback for the better part of two hours.

They congratulated me, I passed. My family threw balloons at me. My husband had ordered a personalized cake, and we popped champagne. My mother-in-law left. My husband went to bed early to work the next night shift. Dr. DeVelvis was in the house…alone!

Two questions:

Question one: do y’all know how it feels to come down after a big event, which had so much excitement and anticipation? Maybe the day after Christmas, or after a honeymoon? The big, bad, “now what?” and sense of listlessness?

Question two: what do you do with a bottle of champagne that you popped, alone, in quarantine at 3 pm on a Monday?

Answer to question one: If you answered yes, welcome! This “now what?” question, so frequently experienced the day after Christmas, lifted its ugly head in the aftermath of my defense. My advisor couldn’t take us out for drinks. I couldn’t hug my wonderful cohort. I couldn’t show first years what a defense looked like. What an anti-climactic end to five years of work.

The “now what?” got uglier in light of COVID-19. We watched our post-docs and job openings freeze, if not completely vanish. It’s already not pretty out there for a history PhD. If I think about it too hard I spiral a bit. So…now what?

I don’t have an answer to that part yet, but I can tell you that I—shockingly—turned to the internet for comfort. Yes, it’s a cesspool, sure, but the community created under the #twitterstorians hashtag reminded me that I was not, nor am I ever, alone. At first I thought myself shallow as I clutched my phone, watching the likes on my “I defended!” tweet roll in, until I gave myself the grace to realize that I was missing human contact, a communal celebration. Thanks to the #twitterstorians, I met several historian friends in person (before this, obviously!) Thanks to the #twitterstorians, I found Historians at the Movies (#HATM). Thanks to #twitterstorians during quarantine, I enjoyed Zoom happy hours with the amazing historians in the Southern Association for Women Historians, Dr. Jen Taylor’s new puppy and hilarious course intro video, Dr. Megan Kate Nelson’s cocktail recipes, Dr. Emily Brand promoting her new book on Byron with some very, very big hair. I saw cats, I saw kids, I saw incredible Zoom backgrounds. I supported my colleagues and, when I defended my dissertation, I received support in return.

After posting to twitter, I sent out a mass email with a new Zoom link, where my friends popped in to say “congrats.” It was chaotic, overwhelming, wonderful. In contrast to what we usually read in studies and think pieces, the internet became my source of strength, and ensured that I never felt alone. I’m so grateful for the love, but, most of all, the memes. Some are borderline nihilistic, but I truly believe we would not be able to weather this storm without a sense of humor. Nature is healing, we are the virus.

So here’s to you, twitter memes, and the historians who keep me laughing. I am confident that you are the light at the end of the tunnel of my “now what?” question.

Answer to question two: You drink the champagne, obviously. Time is a social construct. You deserve it. And if you get a headache? Now, that’s just life.

[Melissa Develvis is a freshly-minted PhD from University of South Carolina where she specialized in women and gender studies, the nineteenth-century South, and emotions history.]

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