I was talking to my German prof yesterday, mentioning that I would be missing all of next week's classes (Monday for my defense, and Thursday for TA work), and he mentioned to me the same advice I heard before my honours defense: "Remember that you are the only expert, on that specific subject, in the room."
I thought about that advice, as I walked home. My initial response was to scoff at such an idea, considering what an expert in Fallada Dr. B is (and he has actually read all three books in German), and who knows about my external examiner. But then I remembered how intimidating my honours defense was. You see, I wrote my honours paper on a local women's ban-the-bomb organisation, in the 1960s. It was almost entirely archivally based, because few had written about that specific group before (there are a couple of books out on the national organisation, but the local group was quite different). That meant that I was relying on my own interpretations of boxes upon boxes upon boxes of papers -- letters, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, minutes from meetings, newsletters. Ten years' worth of the stuff. I always had this vague feeling that I was making something up, that I was imposing my own meanings on the group.
When my paper was in its (seemingly endless) editing stage, my Honours Advisor told me about the committee he put together for my defense: himself (he was the department head at the time), my current department head (to act as department head), and an aging female American History professor. At first, I thought nothing of that choice, because she was also a pioneer in Canadian women's history writing (I'll call her Dr. AH, for American History). However, then Dr. Honours Advisor mentioned, "Dr. AH is quite excited to read what you've written, since of course you know that she was involved in the group for so long. In fact, didn't she donate the collection of papers to the archives?" Only then did I make that connection myself, after having stared at her maiden name (which she hyphenated when she married) for an entire summer.
My external examiner was a woman who not only belonged to the group for more than half of the time period that I covered, but was the president for the last several years: years that I described as the "decline" of that organisation. I cannot even describe the resulting panic. Maybe that's what drove me into European history: you don't know any of them personally.
This panic caused me to prepare really well for the defense. And I have to say that I rocked it. Dr. AH turned out to be thrilled with my paper, and was really impressed with the insight that I had in to the group. In fact, she helped to pave the way for me to get an article based on the paper published, and then asked me to write a biography of the group for a provincial encyclopedia project!
Nothing about this defense is anywhere near as intimidating as that day. And so, next Monday I have to go in there confidently (Jen S and Janice, you're right: I need to find me some Wonder Woman underoos) and behave like an expert in the field.