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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.)

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Thesis: Dedication and Acknowledgments

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

Dedication

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.

Acknowledgments

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.

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: https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/static/5007/graduateschool/submittingforexam.pdf

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

Thesis abstract (as finalized for assignment of examiners)

I should have waited until today before posting the abstract, but I was too excited about it to let it go any longer. Today I had a meeting with my second supervisor, who explained the feedback he had emailed me and told me I didn’t have to stick to 300 words. So here’s the revised version. (I’m leaving the original version up because I did say it was the original version. <smile>)


Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

This thesis presents a study of spiritual and transcendent experiences (STXs) — 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 artefact support for STXs. 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 research programme. Analysis found that STXs proceed in three stages — creating the context, living the experience, integrating the experience — and that artefacts support at least two stages and people desire enhancements to all three. This STX framework supports and extends experience structures from the literature: it recognises the top-level categories as stages in a cycle where integration alters future contexts, and it extends the structure of STX by incorporating the relationships of artefacts and of enhancement desires to the stages of these experiences. This extended structure constitutes a grounded theory of transcendent user experiences.

The second phase involved the design and conduct of three “Transcendhance” workshops for enhancing transcendence, which aimed to elicit speculative design ideas in an atmosphere of fun and play. By playing a game that incorporated themes from the grounded theory of transcendent user experiences, workshop participants sketched 69 design ideas for techno-spiritual artefacts. Analysis mapped the ideas to the stages of STX and drew on relevant research to inspire possible extensions to the workshop-generated ideas. By far the largest number of ideas mapped to the STX stage 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 STX that are tricky to define, impossible to arrange or anticipate, and thus unsuitable for straight-forward “classic” user experience methods. Transcendhance workshops approach techno-spiritual design peripherally, “sneaking up” on the lived experience by addressing the context.

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

Thesis title settled

Throughout my PhD program(me), the title I’ve been using — which I always have to enter on administrative forms — has been “User Experience and the Human Spirit”. That title captures the spirit, the motivation, but gives no information about the content of my research. Today my supervisor and I settled on what I am going to use for the title of my thesis:

Exploring Techno-Spirituality:
Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experiences

I also had to write a 300-word abstract for the purpose of assigning examiners for my thesis. I’ll find out if I can post that here too.

When I find myself thinking that two-days-plus was a very long time to take for only 300 words, I console myself with the famous quasi-quote: “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”