Academia Dummy

After reading this you will undoubtedly think to yourself, “Wow, if this schmuck can be awarded a Master’s degree from an accredited university, then anyone can.”  This is true! So, if that’s one of your goals, I highly encourage you to go for it.  Sooner or later they will give you a degree, and if they don’t, you can always just print one out.  Printer technology has come a long way.

The graduate program I was in required a thesis and a comprehensive exam in addition to passing classes in order to graduate.  It was the middle of my last semester and my thesis had been submitted to the appropriate committee members and I was doing well in all my classes.  The only hurdle left was that damned comprehensive exam.  I had grilled previous students in my program and they assured me the comps were not hard.  But how could I believe that?  No grad student ever admits they had trouble or struggled on any assignment.  I personally have no problem saying, “Yeah, I don’t know what this Marshall McLuhan guy is talking about.  How can the medium be the message? Isn’t the message the message?”  Needless to say, I was still sweating balls over this comprehensive exam.  What if I got in there and didn’t remember anything?  What if I was totally incompetent and had just spend two years of night classes and being a teaching assistant to 350 freshmen for nothing?

One fine day, I got the e-mail from our faculty advisor to let us know when the comps were scheduled.  It was a six hour test on a Saturday, and there was only one other person taking it besides me.  The next day, my father called to invite me to his 4th (or possible 5th) wedding, which happened to be on the same exact day, and was three states away.  Normally, I wouldn’t feel especially pressured to attend since I don’t remember being invited to the last one, but he laid the guilt on pretty thick, asking me to drive my three younger siblings so they could also attend.  I wouldn’t just be declining my invitation, but preventing three other people from attending.  No pressure.  I finally caved and told him I would try to reschedule my comps.

When I explained the situation to my advisor, he was more than happy to oblige, which made me feel even worse about the situation.  If there’s anything I hate in social situations, it’s making people wait on me and making people go out of their way to accommodate me.  We selected a new date, the Thursday prior to the original date, and now the wedding.

Now everything was squared away and I could concentrate on studying for the test that would determine if I got a degree, if I got to be finished with college forever, if I could stop racking up student loans and start paying them off, if I got to find a real job and get on with my life.  No pressure.  My dad and I ended up getting into an argument and I decided against going to the wedding.  Luckily, my three siblings were still able to attend and had a great time.

The day of my test arrived, and I didn’t know how to tell my advisor that my plans changed yet again.  What was I supposed to say? I’m not going to my dad’s wedding anymore; I’ll catch the next one.  I would have seemed like a melodramatic bratface.  I decided to play it cool and go on with the new date as planned.  The day arrived and I showed up with every note, binder and textbook from previous coursework.  I had a bad limp because the day before I had run out of a professor’s office crying and fell into a hole.  My ankle was bruised and sprained, but as a grad student, I didn’t have health insurance.  It was also raining so I dressed as if I were auditioning to play a homeless person on skid row.  For the test, I was stationed at a desk right outside the department secretary’s cubicle on a laptop that was older than me.  I had two questions to answer; one quantitative and one qualitative.  I had three hours for each one, and could only use two textbooks for each.  With the old technology, I had to save my work as a word document to a flash drive which I would turn in.  Basically if anything screwed up with the flash drive, then I was also screwed.

With my future in my own hands, I nervously and anxiously got to work.  To make me feel even guiltier, my advisor would sweetly check on my every few hours and offer words of encouragement.  During my break, the department secretary expressed her stress over her husband being transferred to another state and how she was responsible for packing and selling the house on her own with her two teenage daughters.  I felt like even more of a brat.  I was just a dumb grad student with no real world problems.  I couldn’t handle taking a dumb test and going to a wedding in the same week, how would I ever handle a job, family, kids, any of that?

During the second part of my test, the secretary needed to leave to take care of some important adult things while I typed along on my ancient laptop.  She told me to place all my test materials on her desk when I was finished, and the door would lock behind me.  Surely I could handle this simple task, right?  In complete solitude, I finished my test, reread the questions, reread my answers, double and triple checked that I had answered all parts of the questions, and then finally saved everything and got my stuff together.  I carefully got everything together and placed it in a neat stack on her desk.  I looked around again before closing the door.  There was nothing else I could do; I answered the questions to the best of my abilities.  I closed the door, locking it, and picked up my belongings when I saw it – the flash drive was underneath my pile of textbooks.  What an idiot! In a panic, I looked around.  Could I break the lock?  Could I kick down the door?  I had one thing to turn in, and here it was in my hand.  That’s when I looked up and realized it was a cubicle.  There was a space over the wall where I could drop it into her office.  I had two choices – throw it over and hope she found it, or climb on a desk and drop it onto my neat stack of materials.  I chose the latter.  I climbed up on the rickety desk, hoping it would hold my weight.  My advisor hadn’t checked on me in a while, so I knew he could bust in at any moment, but this was my choice.  I was a grown woman standing on a desk, breaking into a secretary’s office while taking my comprehensive exams.  Maybe that would be the headline in the school paper with a photo of me in handcuffs, shamed.  Finally, I dropped the flash drive onto the stack, and it landed with no problems.  I half expected it to bounce around the room like an overinflated basketball.

With that done, all I had to do was devour a victory Chick Fil-a sandwich, and then act cool on Monday when I had the same faculty advisor as my professor….for a law class.  I’m sure someone who both practiced and taught law for many years had no experience telling when a student was being awkward and withholding information.


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