When I defended my PhD last August, I was incredibly nervous. I had my powerpoint and quotes from James Joyce ready (if I ever need to feel smart, I fall back on the Joyce–cheesy yes, but helpful to me). I went through my speech and began to answer questions from the five-person panel in front of me. Some were challenging, some were actually quite fun. And then, I was told by my adviser that there were a few questions from the external reader. That’s when the defense got downright difficult. I think I stumbled my way through them well enough, because I got to drink the bubbly and have folks call me doctor.
Professor Barry Chevannes was the external reader for my PhD. Not only were his questions tough, but when I received his notes after the defense, it got even tougher. He had problems with just about everything–the beginning, middle and end. There were a couple moments that he found positive, but it was an incredibly scathing critique of a document I’d put quite a piece of my life into. He’d even found just about every little typo.
When I went to the University of the West Indies in the fall, it took me about a month to get up the nerve to speak to Professor Chevannes. I had met him a couple of times, and he was always enthusiastic about my research, connecting me with all sorts of interesting and informative people from Giulia Bonacci to Jakes Homiak. I first really got to know him when, after a Revival table ceremony at UWI in July of 2008, he drove myself and Steven Jacobs back to the Nettleford residences. We were some of the few conference attendees who had stayed through the night until the end of the ceremony. We were on our way to walk back and Professor Chevannes offered us a ride, chatting about religion and history and Jamaica. It was the perfect ending to an incredible evening.
I was concerned, however, that his reading of my thesis had changed all this positivity. I thought I’d let him down with my crumby thesis. So I would think about calling him and then I wouldn’t. I’d sit in the library editing my thesis for final submission, going over and over his comments and complaints, sure that he’d lost respect for me and my research. Finally, after much goading by my adviser and boyfriend, I called him up and made an appointment.
Going to Professor Chevannes’s office, in recent years, meant going to the lovely new peach buildings on the UWI campus, but his office looked as if he’d been installed there for ever. There were books and papers everywhere. I’d chatted with him in this office when I was working on my thesis (having him look quizzically at pamphlets published by groups of anti-Rastafari Ethiopian protestants who’d quoted his work completely out of context) and I entered this time, nervously grasping the post-it-noted, dogeared version of my dissertation and the equally dog-eared copy of his reading notes on said dissertation.
After a bit of chit chat, and his congratulations on my successful defense, he asked me what I had thought about his comments. I started to talk about how valuable I found his comments and went on about how I saw my thesis as the beginnings of a larger project…and then he cut me off, saying, quite seriously, “Erin, really, what did you think of the comments?”
I paused, looked at him and said, hesitatingly, “Well, I thought they were, well, a little severe…” At this point, Professor Chevannes’s very serious expression transformed into a smile and then he started laughing. “Then I did my job!” he exclaimed, and I couldn’t hold back a smile of my own. “They call it a defense for a reason,” he said.
Today, I think back to that moment. To the fact that Professor Chevannes always did his job, and did it exceptionally. He was right, academia is about the defense of ideas. Though I still struggle with this fact, Professor Chevannes was trying to teach me that I need not fear criticism, that it simply exists to help one improve. With his commitment to community, Kingston, Jamaica, fatherhood, Rastafari, anthropology, and so far beyond, I was but one of so many he taught so much–and he will be missed.