Official word on my Viva

Today I received the official word from the Northumbria Graduate School on my viva results:

I write to advise you that following your research degree examination, the University’s Research Degrees Committee has approved the outcome of your research degree examination as follows:

Award the degree, subject to corrections being carried out to the satisfaction of a nominated  examiner

A copy of the Examiners’ joint report and recommendation form is attached – section 6 lists the exact requirements which you are now required to meet.

The deadline by which you should submit your corrections/resubmission to The Graduate School is 24/02/2018 at the latest.

Once all of the corrections have been made, please submit to The Graduate School an electronic copy (formatted as a single pdf) of your corrected thesis/portfolio.

It is good practice, and will assist the examiner who reviews the corrections, if you can indicate where in the thesis you have made the corrections; e.g., by providing a separate list showing on which pages of your thesis/portfolio the corrections have been made, or by making the corrections using a different colour of font from that in the main body of your thesis (or portfolio).

This letter came about two weeks before I expected. I still think the bureaucratic process will prevent me from getting the degree before late October, but at least now I can start working on the changes. Two of them will take just a few minutes each; the other two will require some thought. But yee-haa, the end is in sight!

(The only downside is that I will lose access to Eduroam after I lose my Northumbria email account.)


Thesis: Dedication and Acknowledgments

I’d like to go ahead and make the dedication and acknowledgments public, so I’m posting them here.


I dedicate this thesis to Timothy Kendall, music director of Collegium Cantorum. Without Timothy’s acceptance of me as a Collegium singer in 2007 and his provision of MIDI files to help us learn the music, I cannot begin to imagine having had a transcendent user experience like the one that sparked my research. Timothy, gratias maximas tibi.


My PhD programme and this thesis have been for me an extraordinary adventure that would simply have been impossible without support, encouragement, and guidance from both sides of the Atlantic and even beyond. Deepest thanks go to Professor Mark Blythe, my primary supervisor, for taking me on, helping me learn, suggesting research ideas, encouraging me when I despaired, bearing with me when I was slow to grasp what he had in mind, and generally being an amazing design researcher with whom I have had the privilege to work. Heartfelt gratitude goes to Professor Gilbert Cockton, without whose urging Northumbria would not even have been on my radar, and for his feedback and guidance as second supervisor and his insights into the workings of the university. A tip o’ the hat to Dr Colin Cameron, whom I met doing academic stand-up comedy and who joined my supervision team in media res to provide his expertise on grounded theory. Further appreciation goes to Dr Joyce Yee, Jamie Steane, and Professor Paul Rodgers, who sat on my internal review panels and helped sanity-check my process. Without any one of you, this thesis would not be what it is.

Andii Bowsher, the university’s Co-ordinating Chaplain, expressed great enthusiasm for my work and helped recruit the last few participants for my interviews. Eben Haber pointed me to VideoNoteTakerUtility, an IBM tool he had developed for controlling playback and transcription of recordings; its ease of keyboard control greatly eased that task. And of course I am grateful to Northumbria University itself, for taking me in and providing me the required academic resources, and especially for giving me a three-year studentship to help fund my research.

I have received tremendous support from family in the USA and from friends here, there, and everywhere. Rosamund Stansfield took me in when I was new to the North East of England. She introduced me to Grainger Market and other shopping in Newcastle City Centre, advised me on how to navigate the NHS, and checked in occasionally to see if I could use a friendly chat over coffee. My fellow PhD students acted as sounding boards, workshop participants, and sources of information about the programme. The warm and generous people of Newcastle Unitarian Church welcomed me as a visitor and then as a member; they must have been interested in my thoughts on spirituality and technology, as they kept inviting me to lead the occasional Sunday service. The lovely people of Cappella Novocastriensis gave me a weekly uplift via choral singing in good company, in a church several centuries more ancient than anywhere I had sung back home. Friends are still telling me how much they enjoy reading about my saga on Facebook and in my blog. And in my final year the kindred spirits of RSA Newcastle provided stimulating conversation in a convivial atmosphere.

And, of course, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the participants in the interviews and the workshops. Each person I interviewed took me through a spiritual autobiography and the story of an event or two that meant a lot to them, sometimes getting emotional but always willing to forge ahead. Dear people: I found your stories fascinating and inspiring, and I felt close to you every time I read or listened to your words. Profound thanks to you. The people who joined the workshop didn’t know exactly what they were being asked to do, but they plunged right in. Dear people: It was a joy to see you laughing together as you sketched your ideas and described them to the rest of us. Heartfelt thanks to you.

These acknowledgments would be incomplete if I didn’t mention Facebook, the NHS, and the Oxford comma. By making it easy to keep up with family and friends everywhere, Facebook made it thinkable for me to move across the Pond alone, which allowed me to feel mystified that people kept admiring my courage in doing so. As a full-time student I qualified for health care under the NHS; and although it could at times be excruciatingly slow and inexplicably[1] conservative, it was there when I needed it.

And finally, I must honour the memories of three special family members. My late husband, Antonio Vallone, has been with me in spirit during this fascinating journey of mine and has often helped me in my imagination, grabbing pen and paper and saying encouragingly, “Facciamo un’analisi.”[2] My mother, Beverly Buie, always wanted to hear about what I was doing and was always proud of me even when she had no clue what it meant, and I often imagined explaining my research to her. My grandmother, Kathryn McNairy, shared my interest in extraordinary experiences and once confided to me her own near-death experience, saying “Somehow I just knew you’d understand.” It gives me warm fuzzies to imagine how proud you all would have been.

[1] Most likely they’re trying to avoid spending money until they’re convinced that it’s necessary.

[2] Italian for “Let’s do an analysis.”

Thesis abstract (as submitted for examination)

During the months between when I submitted the abstract for the assignment of examiners and when I completed and submitted my thesis, the abstract changed slightly. The main difference is that the thesis included a greater focus (a whole chapter, in fact) on design fiction and its possible contributions to designing for transcendent user experience. Here’s the abstract that appears in my thesis. The examiners didn’t ask for any modifications to it, so it’s extremely unlikely that it will change in any way.

This thesis presents a study of transcendent experiences (TXs) — experiences of connection with something greater than oneself — focusing on what they are, how artefacts support them, and how design can contribute to that support. People often find such experiences transformative, and artefacts do support them — but the literature rarely addresses designing artefact support for TXs. This thesis provides a step toward filling that gap.

The first phase of research involved the conduct and analysis of 24 interviews with adults of diverse spiritual perspectives, using constructivist Grounded Theory methods informed by relevant literature and by studies performed earlier in the PhD programme. Analysis found that TXs proceed in three phases — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support two phases and people desire enhancements to all three. This TX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as phases in a cycle where integration may alter future contexts, and it extends the structure of TX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the phases of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experience (TUX).

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” game workshops for enhancing transcendence, which incorporated themes from the grounded theory and aimed to elicit design ideas in an atmosphere of imagination, fun, and play. Participants sketched 69 speculative ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts, and analysis mapped them to TX phases and identified possible extensions inspired by relevant research. The great majority of ideas mapped to the phase Creating the Context, with very few mapping to Living the Experience, which suggests that context may be easier than lived experience to understand and address directly. This point is especially important for experiences such as TX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods.

The final phase involved the elaboration of workshop ideas to explore the extension of design fiction for TUX. Analysis related design fiction to the TX phases and suggested features that affect design ideas’ potential for TUX design fiction. This phase ended with the proposal and analysis of three new forms of design fiction — extended imaginary abstracts, comparative imaginary abstracts, and design poetry — using workshop ideas to illustrate the forms, their construction and use, and their benefits to TUX design.

Transcendhance workshops and TUX design fictions approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on lived experience by addressing context and enabling the consideration of ineffable experience through storytelling, metaphors, and oblique imagery.

This thesis combines the grounded theory of transcendent user experience with the Transcendhance workshop process and new forms of design fiction, presenting peripheral design as a promising strategy for facilitating design to enhance transcendent experience.

The culmination of almost five years’ work

It’s been almost five years in the making. I landed in the UK on 18 October 2012 to begin working on my PhD, and on 2 August 2017 (yesterday, as I write this) I passed my viva voce examination, the defense of my thesis.

My examiners (one from Northumbria and one from another UK university) were friendly and positive. They had lots of questions, some of which sought clarification on what I had done or what I meant by something I had written and others wanted my thoughts on related but tangential subjects. Evidently my thesis offered much food for thought. I’m very glad of this.

I ended up being given four modifications to make, mostly having the purpose of clarification. In each case they said that our conversation enabled them to understand, but they were concerned that it wouldn’t be clear to someone reading it without having the opportunity to ask me about it. Fair enough, I say.

Three months ago I wrote that there were five possible outcomes of the viva, but things have changed and now Northumbria defines only four. No longer do the examiners decide whether changes are major or minor; they just write them up and the Research Degrees Committee makes that call, also assigning a deadline for completing them. I’m certain mine will be defined as minor, especially because the examiners said they should take me only a couple of days to do.

One of the examiners said to me afterward that he’s read a lot of PhD theses where he kept wishing the writer would just get on with it, but he really enjoyed mine. I loved that.

From what I understand, I’m not supposed to use the title of Dr. until I’ve made the corrections and have received word that they’ve been approved. So don’t call me Dr. Buie quite yet! Soon, however, soon…

I plan to write a bit of reflection on my PhD process and how I got to where I am, but that will take more time than I have today.

Ah, Cambridge…

What can I say about Cambridge? It’s so very different from Newcastle that I don’t know where to start. Some of the things I’m listing pertain to my new and old neighborhoods specifically, but I think they’re characteristic.

Some things I notice that I like:

  • It’s full of Italians.
  • I can get to London in 45 minutes, which means I can attend Polyphony Down the Pub on occasion. (And a senior off-peak day return ticket costs only £16.40.)
  • It’s full of bicycles, and the infrastructure facilitates them. (When I’m fully back on my feet I may buy one.)
  • They recycle just about everything. Including food waste.
  • The colleges at the university are gorgeous.
  • The bus fare machines don’t spit out a useless paper ticket if you’ve used a pass.
  • There are a lot of local greengrocers and other shops with fruit/veg on display outside.
  • It’s easy to get good Chinese food without paying through the nose.
  • It’s awash in science. Science parks, science campuses, research organisations…
  • The river is puntable. Haven’t done it yet but am considering it.
  • It has a rather intellectual atmosphere, to some extent.
  • It should have more early music. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m told it’s there. Once I’ve got my impending new hip in and working well…
  • Pubs are reasonably likely to serve Aspall cyder. It is close to Suffolk, after all…
  • It doesn’t have a seriously ugly part right in the city centre. (Newcastle peeps, you know I’m referring to the eastern side of Pilgrim Street and that general area, and you know it’s true.)
  • It has a bustling outdoor market right in the city centre. Seven days a week.
  • My neighborhood is not nearly as swarming with students as my Newcastle neighborhood was (which is less now than it used to be). My next-door neighbors on both sides are very nice, and we have good conversations. Some things in common.
  • My office and officemates are nearby.

Some things I notice that I don’t like:

  • They recycle food waste. Which means we have to hang onto it for two weeks until they come around and empty the green bin.
  • It’s not very well served by public buses. Not compared with Newcastle, anyway.
  • It’s despairingly flat. People tell me it will grow on me and I must visit the fens. Stay tuned.
  • There is no castle.
  • The surrounding area has almost no ruined castles or abbeys.
  • There is no indoor market. (I quickly got spoiled by Grainger Market.)
  • Although there are some impressive churches, there is no cathedral. For that you have to go to Ely. (Which I plan to do fairly soon.)
  • There is no river gorge with several impressive bridges crossing it — the Cam River is not very wide and its banks are low. (Don’t even think of bringing up the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been to Venice. Several times.)
  • It’s swarming with bicycles. When I’m driving, this makes me just a teeny bit nervous.
  • There are a lot of modern, sterile apartment buildings.
  • The Apple Store has a long waiting list for Genius Bar appointments.
  • There aren’t any back lanes where they could put community bins or even make it easier to put out our wheelie bins. We have to drag the wheelie bins around to the front, find a place to put them amidst the squeezed-in parked cars, and then drag them back around to the back.
  • The water is rather hard. Every time I go back north, I am reminded of how much my hair likes the water there.
  • My neighborhood doesn’t have parking permits. Sometimes I have to park in the next block or even on the next street over.
  • It gets HOT here. Last September I was here for a few days when the high temperature was 34C (93F). Whew!
  • It takes a lot longer to get to a decent airport. (I don’t count as decent any airport that’s served mostly by Ryanair.)
  • It almost never snows here, they tell me, other than a light dusting.
  • It takes a bit of effort to get to the coast, and even more to get to any hills to speak of.
  • Much less active local RSA chapter.
  • And of course — it’s expensive. I’m paying roughly twice the rent I paid in Newcastle, for an unfurnished place that has slightly more room inside (and admittedly a large-ish back garden). Asking prices of houses for sale are even more out of line.

This list is probably biased by the fact that I’ve just spent a weekend in Newcastle and had a day out in Northumberland. Once I’m really settled in — substantially recovered from hip surgery and able to move reasonably well again (which includes being able to finish unpacking from my move) — I’m sure that my increased ability to explore will increase the size of my positive list. I’ll post further impressions as the mood strikes me.

Finally, I’ve submitted my thesis

This will be short, as it’s after midnight, but under the circumstances I thought I’d better post a quick update.

Thesis and poster images for submitting

I went to Newcastle to submit my thesis in person on Friday. (I did manage to move to Cambridge in February.) Everything went well, I had a good weekend there, and I’m glad that’s finally behind me.

Here’s what’s next:

  • The Graduate School will keep one copy of the thesis and send the other two to the examiners who have been appointed. One of those (the “internal examiner”) is at Northumbria but has not been involved in helping or overseeing my progress. The other (the “external”) is at another UK university.
  • In maybe 2-3 weeks, I’ll receive a notification of the possible dates for my viva voce exam — dates roughly 2-3 months from now that all the other parties have indicated they can make — and I’ll be asked to choose one. This exam should be similar to what in the US is called a “defense”.
  • We’ll meet for a couple of hours. They’ll ask me questions. I’ll answer as best I can. I’ll leave the room. They’ll decide on the outcome. I’ll come back into the room. They’ll tell me the outcome.
  • There are five possible outcomes:
    1. Pass with no corrections.
    2. Pass with corrections required, which I have to complete within six months. My supervisors can sign off on this; the examiners don’t need to review them.
    3. Revise and resubmit (also known as “major corrections”) within a year. This will involve another viva.
    4. Award of a lower degree. (In the case of my research programme it would be a Master of Philosophy.)
    5. Fail.
  • I follow up with whatever is required.

I would say that #1 is highly unlikely and that #4 and #5 are not going to happen. I think #2 is more likely than #3, but I wouldn’t rule out either one and I don’t want to second-guess anyone or contaminate the process. So I won’t say anything else about this except the viva date when I have it, until I know the outcome.

More information is here:

I’ll write a long post soon, about various things.

More endings and beginnings

Today I had what will probably be my last face-to-face meeting with my principal supervisor. He said I’m almost ready to go (i.e., the concepts are well enough fleshed out although I still have some work to do on the content that conveys them). We talked about the draft of my Conclusions chapter (in which I summarize what I did and describe the contributions to knowledge that my research makes), and we also talked about my plans for the Discussions chapter (in which I talk about the limitations of my research and speculate about future research and the possible applicability of my findings). He thinks it’s all excellent. He had a few suggestions to make, of course, but says I’m in very good shape. I still feel overwhelmed by all the editing and pulling together and formatting and printing/copying I have to do to get the thing submittable by late April, but at least I’m not at all worried about how it will be received after I do all that.

This is also my last weekend as a resident of Newcastle. The movers (“removals firm”) are coming next Thursday to pack up most of my stuff, then returning early Friday morning to collect the bed and a few other things and we all head down to Cambridge to move me in. After three weeks of spending 2-4 nights a week in hotels, I am infinitely grateful that my current landlord offered me my pick of the furniture (he’s selling the flat and won’t need it for a new tenant) and infinitely glad I decided to take the beds. I sleep much better in this bed than anywhere else I’ve stayed recently, and it’s not just a matter of a familiar room.

It’s a Toyota!

Island Blue Metallic Toyota Yaris, photo from Hodgson Toyota Newcastle (Note: I redacted the number plate myself)I’ve just arrived home from the Toyota dealer — with a contract to buy a 2016 Yaris. (It’s a 2014 model, design-wise, but was first registered in 2016.) I had considered getting an earlier model for less money, but I looked at the emissions and the fuel efficiency and the road tax and the insurance rating and the length of warranty remaining, and I decided to go for the more recent one even though I think the front grille makes it look like Yosemite Sam. I settled on the color Toyota calls “Island Blue Metallic” (do all auto manufacturers come up with such romantic color names? My last Toyota was a dark green they called “Woodland Pearl”), chosen from similar ones because I liked the color. I had been to the bank earlier and arranged a loan (my bank was offering an interest rate even lower than Toyota’s lowest and was also willing to consider my US income), so I was all prepared.

I had been pondering whether to buy a car this weekend or next, considering that I won’t be moving house for another three weeks, and it turns out that doing it today was perfect timing. The dealer has to arrange the road tax, which they can’t do on a weekend, so I test-drove it and put down a deposit, and I’ll pick it up next Friday. I still have to arrange insurance, but the dealer offers a three-day insurance policy that gives me time to sort my own, and I’ve got a couple of quotes already that I need to pursue.

The sales guy was explaining the controls, telling me that they were all pretty much where I would expect them, from having had Toyotas previously. “Except”, I said, “that the gearshift is to my left.”


Long term, I am in you

I’m on a train, headed home after three days working in our Cambridge office, to which I’m assigned. This morning I had my end-of-probation review, in which I received the news that I will soon be receiving a letter congratulating me officially on moving from probationary to permanent staff. Just as with my visa, I wasn’t seriously worried about this hurdle from a realistic perspective, but my inner catastrophizer was as active as always, and I am immensely pleased. I really like my colleagues and the company culture, and I think it will be a great pleasure to work there for another five years or even longer.

This afternoon I gave notice to my landlord, who said he’ll be sad to see me go. It turns out that my tenancy has to end on the 8th of the month (not 30 days after my notice) because it started on the 9th, so I’ll have a couple of weeks more rent to pay than I had expected (silly me for not checking the rental contract), but I’m very pleased with the house I’ve rented in Cambridge. I wish it were a little better served by buses — I’ve been totally spoiled by Newcastle’s excellent local bus system — but it’s not in a complete bus desert. (I am going to buy a car, but I’m not going to drive into the city centre, so I care about being able to take a bus into town.) The house is a bit larger than my current flat — separate dining room, much larger kitchen, somewhat larger bathroom, a 4-foot-wide unheated but covered space running alongside the kitchen, containing some shelving and (wonder of wonders!) a chest freezer! and a large back garden with a shed and raised beds — although it has no front yard/garden at all (the house fronts right on the sidewalk/pavement) and the main bedroom is only 2/3 the size of the one I have now and probably won’t be a place I’ll want to spend time in during the day. Except for the stairs and the smaller bedroom, the house has wood or tile floors (good for my dust-mite allergy). What makes it really special is the wood-burning fireplace in the living room. It was built as a coal fireplace but the owner has been burning wood in it, and I’m salivating in anticipation of doing the same. I’m looking around for where I might acquire some peat, as I am desperately in need of a peat fire. (Cambridge, like many UK cities, has an ordinance against burning fuels that produce smoke, but this house is outside the prohibited area and I’m going to do it as soon as I can.)

I’m also discovering Chinese and Italian eateries in Cambridge. This week’s prize was a new Italian place next to the train station, where they were delighted to talk with me in Italian and I was delighted to hear one of them say I have almost no foreign accent. It’s been a few years since an Italian has said that to me, and I was afraid I had lost my touch.

Friends, I think it’s going to be a good few years.

It never gets old

I’ve lived in the UK for more than four years now. At the moment, I’m doing a fair amount of travelling for work — mostly from Newcastle to Cambridge or Macclesfield and back. As this morning’s train passed through the misty hills of County Durham, I found myself thinking, yet again, that travelling within the UK still gives me a sense of being on vacation. People often ask me why I feel more energized living in the UK, and I think this is a large part of it. I had visited the UK a couple of dozen times or so before moving here, so even when I’m working hard or spending time in a less-than-idyllic setting, life here always brings me a faint whiff of holiday. Even when I’m grousing about separate hot and cold taps or being called “Mrs” without being asked, there’s just something about the atmosphere…