In exactly two weeks, I’ll be sitting my special fields exam in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American literature. Which, well. What does that mean, exactly? Short answer: it means stress. It means lots of stress, and also sometimes booze. Plus also nights spent staring blankly at the ceiling as I wait for the waves of self-doubt to rock me to sleep.

Longer answer? It means that in exactly two weeks, I will traipse into the grad studies office in UIUC’s English Building and will take a two-hour oral exam. Said two-hour oral exam will consist of four of the brightest minds in American literary history asking me questions about a reading list of roughly 150 literary and academic texts. And ideally this reading list I should, by then, have completed.

Which, again: well.

Not surprisingly, between occasional tête-à-têtes with my friend Jim Beam, I’ve been…  scheming. Considering alternatives, we’ll say, to that over-valorized ideal, the Protestant work ethic. What follows, then, are the results of my anxiety-induced musings—my “febrile lucubrations,” as one of my testers might say. In short, what follows are five backup plans, graded according to feasibility, that I might turn to if hard work and diligent application fall short.

Plan #1: Bribery

Sometimes Machiavellianism gets the goods. And, anyway, what’s a little corruption among academic professionals? The real problem is figuring what I, lowly grad worker that I am, could offer four tenured professors. As far as I’ve been able to discern, the university’s official policy, when it comes to grad employees and non-tenure-track faculty, is to pay them as little as possible. And that makes it hard, therefore, when one finds oneself in the position of having to bankroll a little petty crime or skullduggery.

Grade: C, pushing D—unlikely, because too few zeroes left of the decimal point in bank account 

Plan #2: Work the System

At the turn of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka was busy imagining impenetrable administrative states and labyrinthine bureaucracies. But what if Kafka was wrong? Imagine with me. Might not a keen observer of departmental politics and of Graduate College paper-pushing identify certain nodes, certain weak points, certain hubs of transition and dissonance where mistakes become possible, where one level of bureaucracy overlaps with another? And might not, at just such a hub, an important file or stack of paperwork go missing, go slipping down into the institutional cracks never to be seen again?

For all that modern administrative systems emerged out of the Enlightenment, no bureaucracy has been so thoroughly rationalized that it can insulate itself completely against the intractable human element. A little guilt and a little hutzpah, strategically applied, could go a long way. Indeed, I find myself reminded of Pam, in the US version of The Office, who exploits the chaos of a recent merger to scam herself into a new job.

“Say it,” she tells her new director of sales, a lanky, pathetic young man who just wants to be liked. “Say that I’m lying, or say I have the job.”

Grade: B—I mean, maybe

Plan #3: Family Emergency

An unexpected call, just before the exam starts. A worried glance down at a phone, a quick “excuse me.” A hurried trip to the hall. Then, afterward: an expression shocked momentarily blank of emotion, followed by a few shuddering breaths, followed by tears.

I’m not, when it comes down to it, above exploiting a little fellow-feeling. I am, however, above manufacturing an actual family emergency for my own selfish gain. Consequently, the success of this plan depends, first, on my ability as an actor and, second, on the willingness of a family member to corroborate my story.

Grade: C—wife is too upstanding to collaborate, but perhaps brother… ?

Plan #4: Wing It

Because in the end what’s it really matter I mean I heard there are just four tenure-track jobs in the world in later American lit so it’s basically impossible that I’m going to land one of those and anyway why expend energy worrying about a silly oral exam when there are so many other things to worry about like corrupt presidents and feckless congressional bodies and 2020 elections and wars and coming recessions and a warming planet in the throes of its sixth mass extinction and furthermore 

Grade: [plan retracted]

Plan #5: Duplicator

As we all know, in the end, the best ideas come from Calvin and Hobbes. With a few slight modifications to his original design, Calvin transforms his “Transmogrifier,” an upside-down cardboard box that allows him to change shape, into a “Duplicator.” He then proceeds to duplicate himself, and, well, see for yourself:

In my case, the idea would be that instead of learning all the material I need to know for my exam, me and the dupes could just divide up the labor. Dupe #1 memorizes some stuff about antimodernism; Dupe #2, a little about Afropessimism; and Dupes #3 and 4 could divvy up US nuclear policy and postmodern aesthetics. A few carefully orchestrated trips to the bathroom later, and no one, as Calvin puts it, will be the wiser.

Grade: A—I already have a cardboard box


  1. Kyric Koning

    Calvin and Hobbes for the win! Good luck with your studies!

    • Ben DeVries

      Thanks, Kyric! 🙂


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