Yesterday I sat in on my last oral exam. I was dreading it all last week, and I woke up with a sick feeling. One of the people on the committee is a guy who reportedly told an outraged undergraduate that the reason I didn't get tenure was because I didn't get my work done. So when my orals student asked me a few weeks ago whether or not they had decided to reopen my tenure case, and I told her that Chair has decided it was just too hard and my book wasn't smart enough to meet his standards, she volunteered to tell Didn't Get Work Done accuser that I had a book contract. I was glad he would have to know that I had in fact been working all along. I wanted to look him in the eye to see if he knew that his stupid attempt to justify his department's homophobia and general hostility and lack of support was bullshit. But really I dreaded having to see him, make nice with him, be civil for the sake of the student, like one parent in a bitter divorce trying not to vomit her rage at the other in front of the children.
Didn't Get Work Done accuser never showed to the orals, so my fantasy of telling him off in person never had to face the test of nerve I had set for myself for that day.
The good part was that I had no idea how much the other members of the committee respected me. They were kind, solicitous, and appreciative of my comments about the writing phase of the orals candidate's work. The sad part was that I had no idea how much people like this were really supportive. Why are departments such as this one so terribly alienating? Floors of offices in a high-rise building, each side of the hallway cut off by a large middle room either for meeting or, more often, for cubicles of grad student offices (the Fishbowl, they call the one on my floor). Even worse, that day I did the typical orals thing of not reading any of the answers to the other questions, figuring I'd pick up on the conversation as it took off. Why should I care what they thought? Why should I lift one finger more than I had to, at this point? That's what I was thinking the day before, anyway. When I got to the exam room, however, the committee told me she had failed to adequately answer at least one of the questions, maybe two, and what did I think?
Oops. Caught in a "What are they gonna do, fire me?" moment, I regretted being less than professional. Then I realized that everyone on the committee only knew about the bad question from the guy who had asked it, who had just at that moment told the head about his reservations. The head remarked that since my question had been the one she had done the best on, everybody figured I was fine with her answer in my case. I remember nodding vigorously. I made some comments about the nature of the candidate's writing as unfocused in particular ways, and they nodded vigorously back. Phew. Off the hook, with points for perceptive analysis!
In the debate over whether or not to pass her, I told my story about nearly failing my orals because I had thrown The Country of the Pointed Firs across the room in frustration, only to be asked question after question about that one paltry book, which one member of my committee had thought another member of my committee would be delighted to talk about. Given my current state of approaching unemplyment, I realized that story now lacked the gentle irony it once possessed, not to mention the self-congratulation disguised as self-mockery that had made it a favorite for years in my arsenal of grad school foibles. Luckily the story went off pretty much as it usually did, with chuckles all around and no throat-clearing or hard stares, proof of what I pretty much always suspected, that in truth nobody is really thinking very much about me or what is happening or will happen to me, which actually for the sake of simple everyday painless interaction is fine. Desireable, even.
When I left the room, though, after everyone finally agreed to pass her under the condition that she work on American Transcendentalim a bit more with her interlocutor, after the head thanked me and suggested I leave early to get to the class I had to teach, after the student thanked me, I felt weak. I groaned in relief as I clicked the door shut and hurried down the hall to the elevator. Later that day when my girlfriend asked on the phone how things had gone, I only said It Went Fine. And it really was fine. One more step in the countdown to failure. One step closer to something new, or at least different, away from those hollow flourescent hallways stacked one on the other in a dark pyramid, mute against the gray and empty midwestern sky.