I’ve been sent to an administrator’s office. The hallway is long, sterile, inevitably linoleum. I’m ushered into a room with taupe walls and stock art. A secretary barely notices me. Then, it’s time to talk to the Man in Charge.
“There’s been something of… a mix-up in the records,” Man in Charge starts, folding his hands on the desk in front of him. He looks me straight in the eyes, somber.
“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling the room shrink smaller as the knots in my stomach grow larger.
“It appears as though the scores on your eighth grade exit exams were never put on your academic record,” Man in Charge lowers the glasses to the bridge of his nose, clears his throat. “Without those test scores on your record, it appears as though you never graduated from the eighth grade. Your other degrees are nullified unless you take those state exams.”
I lean back, appalled.
“But I’m working on my doctoral degree! I graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa! I was in the top fifty students at my high school!”
Man in Charge shakes his head.
“None of that matters if there’s no proof that you finished the eighth grade.”
I slump back, defeated.
“There’s nothing I can do?”
Man in Charge purses his lips into a thin line. He sighs audibly.
“I’m afraid not.” He pushes a stack of papers towards me, one emblazoned with golden cursive words that spell, “Welcome!” “I’ve arranged for your enrollment at your former middle school. Golden Hills?”
I nod, dreading all of this, every moment of this.
“You’ve already got your class schedule here. You’ll need to start tomorrow at promptly 7:30 A.M. Your home room is with Mrs. Shepard. School ends at 2:45 P.M. Lunch is at 12:00 P.M. You understand?”
I nod, eyes stinging with the welling of nascent tears.
Some time passes in a breezy drift and then I’m there: school uniform, backpack, three-ring binder. The eighth grade all over again.
It is usually at some point between hearing that fateful news from Man in Charge and stepping into an actual classroom, squeezing into a desk made for a body much smaller than mine, that I wake up from this nightmare. It is a recurring dream, this dream of having to repeat a grade. It is not always the eighth grade; sometimes, it’s the fifth grade. Sometimes, it’s high school. Either way, it’s a return to a regimented day, divided into school periods, always involving a state exam or an exam I forgot to take or never took at all.
I have a number of recurring dreams; this is just one of them. It’s perhaps the most striking one at this point in my career as I anticipate taking more exams of my own, exams that first prove I have basic knowledge of my field and then more exams that prove I have the ideas and chops to write this itsy-bitsy dissertation project thing. Me? Nervous?
If the thoughts from my dreamscape did not make it clear enough already, I hate exams and rarely perform well on them. Perhaps this is why I like writing; it’s an assessment that I can reasonably control. I know how to fix writing to make it clearer. I know when an argument is faulty. I don’t always know when I’ve given a wrong answer. I don’t like anticipating what someone might ask me. In other words, I don’t like giving up my control over the material.
That said, I’m not taking any loathed multiple choice exams. The first exam is my preliminary exam, a two-hour oral exam that tests my knowledge of literary history and media technology theory. I’ve got roughly 150 books of poetry, fiction, drama, and theory to complete before some time this fall (I will not know what date I’ll be taking the exam until roughly six weeks before the date I’m assigned).
I will sit at the end of a long table in a large, hollow room with a cup of compensatory water set in front of me as I answer a series of questions aimed to test how quickly I can think on my feet. I call this “graduate student hazing.” If I pass, I’m on to the next step. If I don’t pass, the punishment is as simple as re-taking this test until I pass. There’s no getting around it.
I’m not exactly reading a book per day, but I’m probably reading anywhere between 200 and 400 pages each day. This seems daunting on paper, but is quite lovely in reality.
Given my life on the screen, an excuse to sit with a book with PAGES on a couch in the summertime is – well – a treat. When I realize my job is to sit on the couch with a book with PAGES (reading carefully and critically and taking good notes and reading critical essays in tandem and ensuring that I understand the literary terms and movements applicable to the text, mind you), I can’t complain. None of these books are “beach reads,” but they are all ones I’ve somehow meant to read, the kinds of books one puts on a bucket list and then, when the time comes to pick it up and actually open up the pages, find something more pressing to do or to read. But I’ve got my external motivation to push me: that long table, those questions, that cup of water I’ll hope not to choke down in a fit of nerves. So, I’m reading. I’m reading a lot.
And as I’m reading, I remember how good it is to read again. It slows me down. It makes my brain lift weights.
A quick digression that will return to the main point soon: I use a lot of analogies with my students when I’m teaching writing and one of my favorites is to compare writing to running. When I first start running, I often feel OK. The adrenaline is rushing. I’ve put myself in the mindset that I’m going to run. But then, after about ten minutes, I’m tired. My breathing is heavy. My thighs and hamstrings feel tight. I’m thirsty. I mean, I’m really over the whole thing and can I go home now? But I recognize that I need to build my endurance in order for the run to be effective, to keep my heart rate high and my body strong. A longer run means that I build more strength. After I get past the pain and the exhaustion, running – at a certain point – feels like exactly what I need. I’m refreshed and my mind is clearer after a run. I’m proud of my efforts.
Similarly, writing for longer and writing more frequently makes writing come more easily; it strengthens one’s ability to articulate one’s thoughts and make an argument. Even when “writer’s block” kicks in and it’s HARD to keep going, writers have to write more – more of anything – in order to produce something of value. Writing is about production.
I struggle with producing words, even as I claim that it’s my craft. This is an everlasting struggle or me, one as wrought as tying on tennis shoes and hitting the pavement. The funny thing is, once I’m invested enough in both activities, I can do both with relative ease; it is the anticipation and fear of both that chokes me up more than anything else.
Even more similarly, reading can be difficult. Sure, reading is much more passive than writing is, but the kind of reading I’m doing – rapid reading of intensely dense materials – requires a concentration and endurance I’ve never had to exert before. While I’m eager to get into my research and to stat my preparation for my next set of exams – the qualifying exams – I know that I have to work through the preliminary exam stage carefully and show that I can absorb hundreds of ideas in a short stretch of time.
I need to prove that I can be an efficient learner, a learner who can synthesize an enormous amount of information and synthesize it well enough to chat casually over tea about it all.
“Why, of course, I can give you not only a clear but an engaging definition of naturalism! Oh, posthumanism, you ask? Why, let me call upon my dear friend, Mark Hansen, to bring that definition to life (pun very much intended!). Perhaps let’s talk time-image while we’re at it. Oh, Deleeeeeuze!”
What will all of this “tea-time” literature knowledge amount to in the long run? The right answer is that I will acquire a basic ability to converse in academic circles. The other and equally as right answer is that I will have the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the critical perspectives that inform whatever kind of dissertation project I pursue. Another equally right answer is that all of my media and technology theory reading will spark ideas for that very same dissertation project and will legitimize the inquiry I pursue. And all of that is very cool even though I’ve been somewhat glib about it.
But I can already imagine the day of the exam itself. I’ll pace around my apartment, then go outside and treat myself to a large mocha and instantly regret the sugar and the caffeine. I’ll be paralyzed with the not knowing what to do and find small things to do until the exam hits. It’ll happen and I’ll forget almost everything about it (unless I fail) and then it’ll be over and I’ll be hit with the crushing anti-climax of it all.
But I think knowing that I can do this, that I can read and read and read and prove myself worthy of being a part of an institution of higher education may quell those dreams, those thoughts of somehow being undeserving or being a clerical error. I know that I can do graduate work and I know that I can do it well. I’ve always wanted to write a book and I’m going to. I hope, I think.
But I’ve got to prove myself first. It’s the first check point. It’s go time.