Thursday, August 20, 2015

Forty years ago today.

I remember just where I was forty years ago today.

Forty years ago, a little earlier in the day than now, I was driving to Ridge Lea Road to take my oral comprehensive exams that would qualify me as a doctoral candidate.  For those unfamiliar with the dance steps, when you begin a doctoral program you, essentially, contract to take a certain number and certain types of courses in your area of study. At the conclusion of the coursework you take what are called qualifying exams. These have both a written and oral component. After the written, you go in and your team of advisers ask several questions to ascertain that you have sufficient foundational knowledge to then proceed and study something that nobody has written about previously.  The result of that research is a dissertation. Get done with that, face another oral exam on the research you did, and you earn your Ph.D.

That Ph.D. is your ticket to college teaching and a guarantee that, should you continue on the path of academia, you will be a peasant compared to the guy you knew at college who graduated with a BS somehow despite the fact that he spent a good portion of his college years on a barstool.  The Ph.D. earns you the right to make 50k less than that guzzler who now works somewhere in Marketing.

So, I was en route to relative insignificant means forty years ago, today.

I was tense on the drive to the test and tried to psych myself up on the highway. My anxiety was based on something very peripheral to the test content itself.  Two of my professors were at loggerheads over issues that were unrelated to me.  One accused the other of being an easy mark, which made the accused I predicted (accurately as it turned out) grill me like a piece of swordfish on a hibachi during the orals. The accuser--wanting to show that his disparaging comments about his colleague reflected his superior intelligence--also would hit me with his best shot.

I can remember that morning like it was yesterday.  I had a routine that summer that served me well as I prepared for the exams.  Every morning, almost as soon as I rolled out of bed, I put on my shorts and ran 1.8 miles around a beautiful park in Buffalo called Delaware Park.  When that was done, I came back to my apartment two blocks away, knocked back a cup of coffee, hopped in the shower and then ritualistically parked myself at 9 in front of a little portable tv set to watch the Honeymooners.  After the Honeymooners I drove to school.  On the morning of August 20, 1975 I figured if the Honeymooners that day would be one of the better episodes it would be a good sign. The episode was the one with the handcuffs (Unconventional Behavior)-- a pretty good one.

Ridge Lea Road housed the temporary campus where my department was temporarily housed.  The campus looked like a series of Howard Johnson restaurants kerplunked together.  I went to graduate school in a parking lot with, essentially, triple wide trailers as classrooms and academic offices.

Anyway I get there and the two antagonists were loaded for bear. They acknowledged me, grunted at each other, and said effusive hellos to the third interrogator who was straddling the fence on their dispute.

They started the questions. What happened was--and this was something that was either pure serendipity or I was far more prepared than I gave myself credit for that day--every question they asked me was something I happened to know.  This may sound like false modesty, but it really wasn't.  In those orals they can ask you what Aristotle had for lunch and it is fair game.  They were asking all sorts of questions about their respective areas and in a number of cases I had just reviewed what they were asking about a few days before the exam.  I remember one guy asking about a really picayune label used to identify certain individuals in a grapevine communication configuration. Just the day before I said to myself that I might as well remember what the labels were. He pulled his head back when I responded with the right label. "That was my best question," he said.

I passed easily. And, as a residual effect, it soothed the tension between the two combatants.  I am not sure if it was my performance or if, after pelting each other with memos (in the days before e-mails), when face to face for a period they became less aggressive toward each other.

So, here I am forty years later, a tenured professor at an excellent university. Earning nearly 200,000 dollars less than contemporaries, whose gut might as well read, "Budweiser".  Nevertheless, career wise I am content. How did I get my ticket punched. Well, there were some other factors. I did write a good dissertation that is so complex that now, when I look at it, I have to remind myself what I did with the charts. I absolutely give credit to myself for some industry at various stages.  But a big factor, no baloney, was luck or divine intervention.  There were a lot of questions a grand inquisitor could have asked that day for which my response could have been, "damned if I know".  And had they asked such questions, I would not have passed Go.  As it happened, the zingers they sent my way were zingers I studied.

Forty years ago today.

I have since considered August 20th a lucky day.

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