John Granger: Three Minute PhD Thesis

Swansea University, at which I am pursuing a PhD in English through a collaboration with the University of Central Oklahoma (read about that here), has a contest each year called ‘Three Minute Thesis.’ I’d never heard of it but was told it is a big deal not only in Wales but globally; more than 200 universities participate. I decided to give it a go, both to clarify the thesis for my own work, crystallize it really, and as an exercise in public speaking.

As a rule, I do not read a paper when I give a talk. This has the great advantage of bringing the exchange to life. Not being scripted, however, dynamism aside, has the downsides of making it very hard to know exactly how long the presentation will actually be. My best talks are solo performances, consequently, of about an hour in length before a large crowd. My embarrassing memories ‘on stage’ are all from academic events before fifteen or twenty people, at which events everyone else reads their exactly fifteen minute long papers — and GilderJohn goes over and gets cut off. Ouch.

Why not practice a timed talk, then, that wasn’t just read, a practice I find borderline unforgivable in a speaker? (“I didn’t travel all this way to hear you read; I can read the paper later and get more out of it that way. I want to hear you speak with me as an expert, not demonstrate your literacy…”) Why not try to speak from memory and within a set time? I decided to give it a try.

So I wrote out a ‘three minute thesis’ talk, timed it, cut it, timed it, cut it, timed it, and added a sentence and phrase here and there. Then I memorized it, practiced it with stop watch, made changes, and memorized that version. Rinse, repeat. The Swansea event is live in front of an audience of 200 (large by uni standards, I know, not fandom conferences); I had to record my talk in Oklahoma with a web-connection to Swansea before an audience of two.

I’m glad I did this even though my performance isn’t going to win any prizes. My timed event at UCO, not the practice session above I did at home, taught me a much greater respect for actors. I flubbed my memorized last paragraphs when the man cueing me that I only had thirty seconds left (as he had told me he would), just by holding up three fingers on one hand and a ‘perfect’ zero with thumb and forefinger on the other derailed me. Before an audience of two on a projected screen! Imagine if there had been a room full of people actually responding to what I was saying…

I’m glad I did it because it has helped with my thesis work-in-progress, because it confirms me in my soft resolution not to do academic read-aloud confeences again (at least not as fifteen minute paper story-times), and because I now have a film I can send to friends like y’all who have asked me about my thesis. Below is the five part talk I memorized and ad-libbed from; let me know what you think!

1. A telling joke among Potter Pundits is that J. K. Rowling has sold more books than any author other than God or Chairman Mao – and that God had a big head start and Mao had a large captive audience.

But whence Potter-Mania? Why is Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga the global shared text of the 21st Century?

2. This is not another abstract, academic exercise in analyzing the trivial.

Human beings are homo fictus, the story telling animal, whose waking and sleeping mental lives are the narrative we write to make sense of our experiences.

Rowling has crafted the best-selling stories of our age; in understanding their artistry and meaning lies the possibility that we will come to a better understanding of the stories we write ourselves about ourselves.

My formalist analysis reveals that Rowling’s Wizarding World is as popular as it continues to be because her stories, in their structures, symbols, and embedded spirituality do best what it is we want our stories to do.

3. A formalist analysis of Rowling’s work is in order for three reasons:

• This approach highlights the deliberate artistry of the author, her answers to questions all authors face about structure, style, genre, and voice;
• Two of Rowling’s most notable influences, Vladimir Nabokov and C. S. Lewis, were literary scholars and intentionally formalist writers; and
• Postmodern literary criticism in contrast with formalism is a jackhammer of analysis that reduces texts to psychobiographical or political artifacts and fragments rather than deliberate works of authors who know what they’re doing.

4. Reading Rowling as intentional artist after the models of Nabokov and Lewis reveals her signature choices that create unique reader response.

We find, in brief, that her novels are written
 as strict ring compositions
 using the images and colors of literary alchemy
 in stories laden with Christian symbolism
 and with sophisticated literary allusion, self-referencing, and fantastically involved narrative release.

5. Mircea Eliade wrote that in a secular culture story serves a mythic or religious function, i.e., that we read to transcend ourselves by exercising the spiritual capacity in us which is not bound by our ego existence.

A formalist critique of Rowling’s artistry suggests that, for stories to satisfy this spiritual longing, they need to be magical, if not with spells and wizards, than with the structures, symbols, style, and story twists that lift us out of ourselves for an out-of-ego experience.

Most people think the magic in the Potter novels happens via the fantasy genre Rowling chose for her story, but in fact, the real magic lies in the story’s formal elements that produce in readers the transcendence of ego that readers as human beings naturally seek.


  1. David James Gras says

    Brilliant John……brief, concise and completely on the point of your talk !!

    I only wish I could do this as well as you….I have a tendency to get “long-winded” on my main “bullet” points.

    By the way a portion of what you presented here is what I will be in my talk at LeakyCon 2018 and PotterverseCon 2018, “Harry Potter/Fantastic Beasts: The Power of Myth and Magic”.

  2. Michael B. Fish says

    Excellent work. I especially like what you say about postmodern criticism. The death of the author has not been kind, and I would like to see a resurrection amongst the new generation of literary critics.

  3. David Martin says

    In re homo fictus:

    There have been societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
    – Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018,
    American novelist)

  4. I’m sure you’ve read Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, but in a feeble attempt to impress you, I recommend it, chapter 1 especially.

    Also I am impressed that at about 3 minutes in the video you fend off a powerful Avada Kedavra without flinching or stumbling in your presentation.

  5. Brian Basore says

    This became a more wonderful three minutes after I found and read an expansion of it online: “Book Binders: What I Learned About the Great Books & Harry Potter“, by John Granger, Touchstone Magazine, May 10, 2008. Go, John, go!

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