"It would appear that we are nearly out of time," announced Manning Chilton, one glittering eye fixed on the thin pocket watch chained to his vest. He surveyed the other four faces that ringed the conference table. "But we are not quite done with you yet, Miss Goodwin."
Whenever Chilton felt especially pleased with himself his voice became ironic, bantering: an incongruous affectation that grated on his graduate students. Connie picked up on the shift in his voice immediately, and she knew then that her qualifying examination was finally drawing to a close. A sour hint of nausea bubbled up in the back of her throat, and she swallowed. The other professors on the panel smiled back at Chilton.
Through her anxiety, Connie Goodwin felt a flutter of satisfaction tingle somewhere in her chest, and she permitted herself to bask in the sensation for a moment. If she had to guess, she would have said that the exam was going adequately. But only just. A nervous smile fought to break across her face, but she quickly smothered it under the smooth, neutral expression of detached competence that she knew was more appropriate for a young woman in her position. This expression did not come naturally to her, and the resulting effort rather comically resembled someone who had just bitten into a lime.
There was still one more question coming. One more chance to be ruined. Connie shifted in her seat. In the months leading up to the qualifying exam, her weight had dropped, inexorably at first, and then precipitously. Now her bones lacked cushioning against the chair, and her Fair Isle sweater hung loose on her shoulders. Her cheeks, usually flush and pink, formed hollows under her sloping cheekbones, making her pale blue eyes appear larger in her face, framed by soft, short brown lashes. Dark brown brows swept down over her eyes, screwed together in thought. The smooth planes of her cheeks and high forehead were an icy white, dotted by the shadowy hint of freckles, and offset by a sharp chin and well made, if rather prominent, nose. Her lips, thin and pale pink, grew paler as she pressed them together. One hand crept up to finger the tail end of a long, bark-colored braid that draped over her shoulder, but she caught herself and returned the hand to her lap.
"I can't believe how calm you are," her thesis student, a lanky young undergraduate whose junior paper Connie was advising, had exclaimed over lunch earlier that afternoon. "How can you even eat! If I were about to sit for my orals I would probably be nauseous."
"Thomas, you get nauseous over our tutorial meetings," Connie had reminded him gently, though it was true that her appetite had almost vanished. If pressed, she would have admitted that she enjoyed intimidating Thomas a little. Connie justified this minor cruelty on the grounds that an intimidated thesis student would be more likely to meet the deadlines that she set for him, might put more effort into his work. But if she were honest, she might acknowledge a less honorable motive. His eyes shone upon her in trepidation, and she felt bolstered by his regard.
"Besides, it's not as big a deal as people make it out to be. You just have to be prepared to answer any question on any of the four hundred books you've read so far in graduate school. And if you get it wrong, they kick you out," she said. He fixed her with a look of barely contained awe while she stirred the salad around her plate with the tines of her fork. She smiled at him. Part of learning to be a professor was learning to behave in a professorial way. Thomas could not be permitted to see how afraid she was.
The oral qualifying exam is usually a turning point - a moment when the professoriate welcomes you as a colleague rather than an apprentice. More infamously, the exam can also be the scene of spectacular intellectual carnage, as the unprepared student - conscious but powerless - witnesses her own professional vivisection. Either way, she will be forced to face her inadequacies. Connie was a careful, precise young woman, not given to leaving anything to chance. As she pushed away the half-eaten salad across the table from the worshipful Thomas, she told herself that she was as prepared as it was possible to be. In her mind ranged whole shelvesful of books, annotated and bookmarked, and as she set aside her luncheon fork she roamed through the shelves of her acquired knowledge, quizzing herself. Where are the economic books? Here. And the books on costume and material culture? One shelf over, on the left.
From The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. Copyright 2009 Katherine Howe. To be published in June 2009. Available wherever books are sold. All rights reserved.
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