Untenured

Untenured

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 18 1999 10:00 PM

Untenured

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Today, as I struggled through the dual and mutually exclusive demands of my day job and my gig moonlighting for Slate, I find myself making the following unfortunate comparison:

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Writing for Slate is:

1) paid

2) instantly published

3) read by large numbers of indulgent readers

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4) finite

5) paid

Academic writing is:

1) unpaid

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2) hardly ever published

3) read by small numbers of unforgiving readers

4) infinite

5) unpaid

This provokes a terrible revelation: Not only do I live in hell, but I do the devil's work.

Today, this was quite true. After numerous hours meeting face to face with the undergraduate students to discuss their paper drafts, I entered the infernal realm of the Ph.D. oral exam. To understand what this entails, you must appreciate that graduate students suck up time like vampirous vacuum cleaners. They cannot help it, it's not their fault, but even the slightest contact with them translates into temporal losses of catastrophic magnitude. The typical graduate student Ph.D. exam begins with flirtation and flattery. They spot you in the hall, sidle up to you and, in dulcet tones, they whisper: "Will you be on my exam committee?" Or they call and say, "I need to see you. I can't take my exam without you. Only you can help me."

O vanity of vanities. I am a colossal sucker for this kind of sweet talk. The very minute you sign on to their committee, the notion of "office hours" turns into wispy smoke. They come waving lists of obscure titles one pretends to have read, but hasn't. They want to be examined on these great works. They need to talk about them. But when they roll in to discuss the books, they are timid, they are frightened, they are lost. The more lost they become, the more they need expert advice. I am the expert here, but for the life of me I can't remember anything about the damn book they're working on. Or I've never read it. I try to be brave, and compensate with time and attention. Each meeting usually takes at least an hour or two. We meet for weeks, months, sometimes almost a year as they postpone their exam and change their books. But all this is mere foreplay. As the dreaded date of their exam approaches, they become even more hungry and desperate for time. I catch the crazed look in their eyes. Their panic is contagious, and I start making evening appointments. Weekends. They have no limits.

By the time of the exam, I am a nervous wreck. The titles on their exam list snicker and sneer at me, contemptuously. Subliminally, I can hear their singsong nya-nyas: "You don't know anything, you are a faker, you are a fraud." "Snuff it," I snarl back. "I am the damn expert." "Yeah, right, whatever," they mumble. And then we walk into the room. Where there are experts.