Friday, October 24, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus

by Jean Roberta

Getting a formal education that includes diplomas is both a quest and a journey, similar to immigrating to a new country to find new opportunities. Just as my ancestors travelled from England, Ireland and Germany to America in the nineteenth century to escape from poverty and Napolean’s armies, my parents earned university degrees on scholarships to rescue themselves from the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. The price they paid was the cultural distance that opened up between themselves and their working-class families.

Growing up in my parents’ intellectual household was like being the first American-born child of immigrants. Everyone else in my parents’ extended families thought I read too much and showed too little respect for authority and traditional values.

Going back to the world of my parents’ childhood was impossible. In any case, higher and higher levels of education seemed to be required just to get an entry-level job.

When I was thirty, the bottom fell out of my life. As a divorced mother, I moved myself and my child into a low-income co-op for single parents and discovered that the clerk-typist-receptionist jobs I used to rely on had largely disappeared. I had not been granted the Bachelor of Education After Degree that I had counted on. Sex work brought in quick cash, but it was hardly a long-term career. I finished the coursework for a Master’s Degree in English without much trouble, then worked on my thesis.

No one warned me that a writing project that was supposed to take one year or possibly two would stretch on to eight years. First, my advisor rejected my whole first draft and told me to start over.

Then the Faculty of Graduate Studies, in the person of the Associate Dean, a biologist I thought of as the “snake lady” (snakes were her specialty), began to threaten me with expulsion from the program for taking too long to finish. On a regular basis, I received warning letters which had to be followed up with in-person interviews.

Several times, I explained to Snake Lady that my advisor in the English Department had failed to give me feedback on my latest chapter for several months at a time. Snake Lady would point out that the professor was an esteemed academic, and therefore I had no right to imply that he was at all responsible for my failure to complete a thesis in time.

Once, I told her, “This situation is worthy of Kafka.” She was not amused.

Throughout most of a decade, I seemed to be wandering in a desert, seeking a route to the nearest oasis. I was terrified that my advisor and Snake Lady would simply kick me out so they would no longer have to deal with me. They could always justify their decision on grounds that they were defending the standards of the university against my inferior mind.

Then, one magical summer, everything fell into place. Someone must have lit a fire under my advisor, because he suddenly became available and encouraging. A date was set for my oral defense.

By then, I knew that universities are essentially late-medieval institutions. (The oldest were founded in the 1200s.) The way to prove one’s intellectual worth in such places is to joust with senior opponents, whose job is to play the devil’s advocate. If they couldn’t unseat me from my philosophical position, they would grant me a place in the Ivory Tower.

Even after eight years of revisions and delays, there was no guarantee that I would survive. My father was teaching in another department, but being a faculty brat hadn’t opened any doors for me.

I brought the latest version of my 200-page thesis to a typist who responded to my need for an absolutely flawless copy by telling me she used spell-check, which would screen out all typing/spelling errors. I knew it wouldn’t. Finally, she had finished typing the thing according to regulations, with a wide left margin so it could be bound in dark-red leather, with the title and my name to be embossed on the front cover. I had proofread it several times, and asked her to make changes.

Where I had explained that a certain couple in the novel under discussion had married for the sake of convention (the bride was pregnant by a former boyfriend), the typist had typed that they married for the sake of “conversation.” (That seemed like a good-enough motive, but it was not what I wrote.) I was not amused.

When I brought my bound thesis to the university for the examining committee to pick apart, I was travelling by city bus. I proofread the whole thing, page by page, one last time.

Ohmygod, ohmygod. The typist had substituted the word "form" for "from" in several places. Of course, spell-check hadn't alerted her to her mistake because both of them are standard English words. I had failed to notice this problem before.

I was so filled with adrenalin that I thought I could fight an actual duel. Or maybe I would just throw up on the sidewalk after getting off the bus, and this would be a prelude to further humiliation. I had never experienced such a bumpy, nauseating bus ride. I could feel the big, mindless wheels turning under me, following the same route they followed every hour.

Few people on earth seemed to care whether I was going to be chewed up and spat out by a committee of scholars. Certainly, no one else on the bus cared. Some of them were just going home from work, and had no interest in anything that took place in the university, that haven for the strange and the nerdy.

I felt like a doomed loner from literature: Hamlet, Joan of Arc, Jude the Obscure. I brought my thesis to the committee member who was waiting for it, and babbled an apology for the transposed letters. I probably sounded drunk. The prof didn`t seem concerned by the horrible typos, even after I had pointed them out.

When I entered the room of my ordeal, the committee seemed welcoming, and I took hope from that. After a discussion that went at a brisk pace and ended sooner than I expected, the inquisitors voted unanimously to give me a Master`s degree.

Over a traditional lunch in the Faculty Club, a member of the committee casually mentioned that my thesis was beautifully written. All the rest agreed, as though this fact were self-evident. I could have fainted.


  1. Jean:
    A harrowing story indeed. Courage, persistence and the kindness of strangers. It's an epic tale. You should be proud.

    You skipped over one part very lightly;
    Sex work brought in quick cash, but it was hardly a long-term career
    Whoa, maybe its just me. How did you ever keep this fact away from the prying eyes of the folks in your department? How did this begin? How did you manage to convince yourself it was okay? There is a whole novel just in this part of your story and it could have brought your noble aspirations to a crashing halt.

    You did all that for a Masters Degree? Wow.

  2. Your trials and tribulations remind me of Pilgrim's Progress, which was a quest story if ever there was one. On another tack, in high fantasy terms, your Snake Lady was clearly a Dragon Lady, your sex work the obligatory low point in servitude, or something rather like it, and your typist's errors the final volley of demonic slings and arrows even after the magical summer of progress.

  3. Medieval indeed! Makes me feel better about not going to college. Sounds like my Catholic high school years, where they first demean a person to create the proverbial 'blank slate', then fill in the blanks for you. In any case, no surprise you aced the final with your novel.

    Had to laugh about the 'splell chelk' comment.

  4. Thank you for commenting, all.
    Spencer, I've actually written quite a bit about my life in 2 escort agencies in the 1980s when I was working on my thesis and having trouble paying the rent, so I thought I might not need to go into detail in this post. Sacchi, you're right about the significance of this as part of my quest. What I thought at the time was that I had to serve Aphrodite for awhile so I could earn the right to serve Athena, the goddess to whom I felt I had been committed since birth.
    Re the Snake Lady and my thesis advisor, I felt more betrayed by him than by her. My
    advisor and his wife were a British faculty couple who had known my parents for years, and I had babysat their 3 daughters. When he agreed to supervise my thesis, I thought he was on my side. Apparently not so much. (Too late, I realized that he was opposed to the intro of new courses on women writers & that Mrs. Advisor had much less education than her husband. In short, he didn't seem to be a great fan of more women in the Ivory Tower.) At some point in the process, Prof Advisor seemed reluctant to get back to me at all, and when I phoned him, he would point out that he was busy. Then Snake Lady would send one of her written warnings. I sought help from the other members of the committee as well as from the head of the English Department, who all told me to "work closely" with my advisor. Ultimately, I suspect the department head told my advisor that he had an obligation to supervise my thesis, and he had to get on with it.
    Daddy X, a thesis for a degree in English (as distinct from Creative Writing) can't be a novel. I wrote an analysis of a 5-novel series called "Children of Violence," written by Rhodesian-born British novelist Doris Lessing. I still have a pile of rough notes that I can't bear to throw out. When I changed offices last summer, though, I found several of Snake Lady's warning letters in my files, and I shredded them. That was satisfying. Thanks for your votes of confidence!

  5. This is an incredibly suspenseful story of a thesis. I've heard of tons of cases where the process of a thesis got dragged out to epic proportions, but this one really takes it. I had a tough time with my grad school advisor as well, and it was a unique and lonely sort of misery. I'm sorry you were at the mercy of the medieval structure for so long (my guy at least did get me out quickly).

    I would totally have lost my mind about the typist. Proofreading errors in my work drive me to distraction, particularly when they're not my fault. I'm glad you got the recognition in the end, though!

  6. Thank you, Annabeth. Writing a thesis is such a lonely process, and the grad student is usually at the mercy of the advisor. I'm always interested in hearing other thesis stories.


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