I just left the ph.d. defense for my capoeira teacher and friend, Lang. Her dissertation on capoeira focuses on how the Afro-Brazilian martial art form is both a powerful site of transformative learning and a challenge to strictly logical/cerebral learning indoctrinated in us in academic institutions. She began defending her thesis this morning by bringing in the whole group and playing in the roda at the beginnning.
The University of Toronto is really strict about these things: defenses are not open to the public and we were not allowed to be present during the actual defense. But we were allowed to provide a ‘demonstration’ prior to the defense. It was never so clear to me how challenging her work is to the institution as it was in that moment: the capoeiristas, in our whites, singing and clapping and kicking each other in the face playing and laughing, while the committee sat around a table watching. Lang had the courage to invite them to come stand in the circle—a few were eager but several were extremely resistant. We did our roda, then we capoeiristas left, and Lang is there now, defending her work and her choices. I don’t know how it’s going but I do know that I admire her commitment to embodying her very argument. And I felt not a little jealous that she invited this vibrant community to sing and dance and transform the very room in which she is defending her ideas. To not have to walk into that room alone.
I wonder if I can somehow make a similar choice when the time comes for me to defend. Given my dissertation focus is historical, I’m not sure how I can make exactly the same choice outside of trying to raise the dead, but it does open my eyes to the kinds of choices we are told we have and the kinds of choices we can make for ourselves and our work. Perhaps there is a way to integrate my singing practice, perhaps even just to warm up and sing in community prior to such a cerebral exercise/rite of passage might remind me that I have a body as well as a brain. That I love to think about music, but not as much as I love to make music.
I can’t speak for her committee, but Lang’s work has changed how I want to engage in academics.
Professora Lang in the roda in Brazil in the Filhos de Bimba Escola de Capoeira