Friday, April 27, 2007

oral fixation

Dearest P(hD),

The Oral Exam is a curious tradition in academia. I became convinced at one point that it amounts to a type of cruel, protracted hazing ritual. A good friend of mine developed hives while studying for hers, plus a few allergies from which she hadn't previously suffered. Still another was driven to therapy for the first time after experiencing her first anxiety attack (ah, remember the days?), while your very own pea quit all her meds, isolated completely in the middle of Brooklyn with only her books and an devilishly addictive video game called Animal Crossing, and lamented the fact that her therapist was on maternity leave.

What could be the possible use of this exercise? As researchers, we are trained that intelligence rests not in stuff you know, but in knowing how to formulate interesting questions and seek out answers to them in languorous, creative ways. College may teach us to "cram," but grad school is supposed to teach us to relax and dig in, to value depth over coverage, to submerge ourselves in the minutiae of words and images and ideas. The orals, on the other hand, drive us to distraction, to watching movies and reading Cliffs Notes, to relying on summaries and dust jacket blurbs and outlines we gratefully find via desperate Google searches. The orals make us hate books a little (or maybe a lot; why are they all so fucking long?), though we're supposed to be learning the art of more responsibly loving them.


On the day of my orals, I felt plugged in. Completely crazy and wired, yes, but plugged in, grown up, able to think about wide swaths of literary history in some rough and provisional but still viable frameworks. I spoke in broad terms about centuries and dynasties and movements without being full of shit. Mostly, I made it through, and felt OK on the other end.

I have been watching you from afar, pea. I have been reading about your frustration, but also about your happy discoveries. I have seen the photos of your books and your piles of notes, and you look great together. I have thought about you at that lecture, feeling plugged in and at home while still recognizing the shabby ridiculousness of academic pretensions. I have seen the images that drive and move and inspire you. I have no doubt that you'll get through it, and even have hopes that you'll think maybe it was worth it.

I am so proud of you, my poet and academic and best of all friends.

With love,


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