Last night I was with a group of people who were talking about their oral exams in graduate school.
One person explaining his advice to a fellow student about Professor X: “You know him from the reading group as FirstName, but in the exam room he will be very much Professor X.” Advisee was all, pshaw, FirstName is such a nice guy… After the final, though, he said, “Wow, I met Professor X in there.”
I think the prize, though, went to the person who had one of her committee members actually fall asleep during her oral exam. A big guy. She is very short, as was one of the still-wakeful committee members. They ended up having to lean way back in their seats in order to talk over the sleeping guy. (I think there were relative status levels at play here, big guy being a Big Guy, and thus being able to do whatever he wanted….)
My own oral exam was friendly and almost fun. It was sad, though, because the woman who was supposed to be chairing it was in the hospital dying, and we were all missing her. At the last minute we’d substituted another professor, and he didn’t show up. We had awaited almost half an hour for him, when he finally stuck his head in at the door. He announced that as a dean, he could give me permission to have my exams with one fewer examiners. So he was giving me that permission, and taking his leave.
After that, we were all almost rowdy. My committee guys were all fine and smart people. My Italian guy was the Dante professor who also taught Hittite; my English professor was a poet; my two Comp Lit professors were scholars in love with their fields. Not a mean person in the bunch. When I answered a question, they’d all join in discussing it. It was like the best seminar ever.
My favorite part was towards the end. The man who would have chaired my dissertation, the sweetest, gentlest guy you could imagine, had a question about how I read the end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Well, first of all, the Troilus is pretty much my Favorite Thing In The World. It’s a lovely medieval love story set in the city of Troy during the war. You have courtly lovers, and lots of philosophy, and the casting of the Trojan War as a medieval siege. And all of it Chaucer. A very kind question.
Anyway, in the poem, Troilus has been betrayed by his lover, Criseyde (or at least she was unkind). In the course of the story, you have seen him go from a callow young man, to a successful lover whose very being is purified by this love, to a man whose last hopes have been destroyed. He is killed in battle shortly after. At this nadir of story, where everything has been lost, Troilus’ ascending spirit looks down on the loved ones mourning his death in the doomed city, and he laughs. I talked about this bit for a while. Troilus is ascending through the celestial spheres and seeing things now from the divine perspective; it is not an unkind laugh but rather an assertion that human life is a comedy not a tragedy; etc.
But what else happens at the end, my professor asks. I am blanking and ask for a clue, and then HE has trouble remembering it exactly. The exam is in the department library, so he simply pulls the book off the shelf and reads it to the committee. At the very close of the work, Chaucer goes on to point his readers (he and she) towards divine not human love, and closes with a prayer to the trinity. So is this passage a rejection of the secular love poem it ends? Well, no, not since you have Troilus right before this demonstrating the shift from earthly to divine perspective. And Troilus’ worth as a person has very much been shaped by his relationship with Criseyde. Chaucer is just underlining a point: there are relative values here, and he needs to be sure that we are weighing them correctly. If he meant us to reject his poetry he’d have burnt it, not written a rhyming apology for it.
Anyway, I have been contemplating that laugh of Troilus lately. I mean, I can’t go very far along with Chaucer when he gets to “the one and two and three alive/that reignest ay in three and two and one,” but I’m pretty much down with the concept that the way things look to us here, now, close up, is not necessarily the way they are. And I like to think there could be a laugh there somewhere.