As I sat outside the examination room in nervous anticipation, I really felt like I was awaiting my sentence. Did I pass? I must have passed. They smiled at me. One of my professors had told me before the exam even began that he had a good feeling about my chances. (But this was just one day after our last seminar, during which I had incorrectly answered half a dozen of his questions. So I took what he said with a grain of salt.)
My oral exam — you could consider it a kind of qualifying exam for my Master’s degree — didn’t go too terribly. I was certainly nervous, and upon being unable to answer the very first question (something about different types of spectrograms that went straight over my head), flushed a deep red and tried to hide it with suddenly-clammy hands. After ninety minutes of similar flustered maundering, thankfully punctuated by periods of clarity and smooth explanations of phenomenon X and classic study Y, my professors told me that I had kept my composure very well. They apparently didn’t notice that when I’m jittery, I uncap and recap the pen I’m holding twenty times a minute. And if I don’t have a pen, if I’m just sitting on a bench outside the examination room, I have nothing to recap but every fumble and misstep I may have made. I’m sure I mixed up those two models of sentence processing… I don’t think what I drew on the board made any sense… They asked so many leading questions, what if I didn’t make myself clear enough?
That’s where I was when the door opened. I jumped up immediately, and my professor extended his hand. “Congratulations!” he said as I accepted it. As I re-entered the room, my two other examiners followed suit with smiles and outstretched hands. “Really?” I said. “Whew!” I may have been waiting for a sentence, but all I got was a word. And it was a good one, too.
– – –
So, I passed! The first milestone of graduate school is now behind me; I can look back on it with varying degrees of regret and nostalgia, but I never have to do it again. (At least not until the real quals in year four, which stand, among other hurdles, between me and my PhD…)
I’ve been blessed with a spate of good news lately. The most important is about the oral exam, of course, but on a similar academic note, I was awarded a small research fellowship that will help me purchase professional recording equipment for my work this summer.
And lastly, I wanted to share about a random literary contest that I entered last February at the urging of a friend. An online magazine called Easy Street was holding a sort of “Best Sentence” creative writing contest and was offering a prize of $10 per word for its winning entry! Now, I’m not the most florid writer, but I enjoy crafting poems, stories, and things of that nature, so I quickly submitted a few. And, well, out of over two thousand entries from over five hundred people, one of my sentences won an Honorable Mention! How neat! (I’d already forgotten about the contest by the time I was notified of the results, so it was a pleasant surprise.)
Here is my (fairly verbose) honorably mentioned sentence:
Bathos is what happens when a great orator looses his tongue upon a galvanized crowd, petitioning the heavens for glory come down like fire and hail, setting souls free from cowardice, prophesying an end to sin and shame, levying the raw, unadulterated power of language to rally hundreds, thousands to his cosmic cause, and then finishes kind of lamely.
Can you tell I was gunning for that $10/word prize? Haha. If you weren’t aware of the word bathos before, you’re probably in good company. I didn’t know what the word meant until my friend Lilith in the Rhetoric department asked me what my take on it was, as a linguist. I told her I had no idea, but later went to a dictionary and added bathos to my running list of neat English words.
All of the winning entries can be found here: Great American Sentence Contest. The other sentences were really fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them, and doing so has gotten me thinking about writing creatively more regularly now on. I guess it’s too bad the sentence that I submitted was completely stand-alone and not part of a longer piece. I’d hazard that good sentences can always be made better by context. I’ll see what I can do this summer.
Many thanks to Lilith and Easy Street Mag! I’ll definitely participate again next year.
Word of the Day: palaverous, which comes to English via Portuguese and Latin, means something (usually speech or an activity) that is characterized by long and idle chatter, flattery, or persuasion. For speech specifically, it can just be a synonym for “wordy”. The noun it is derived from, palaver, was used by Portuguese sailors as early as the 1700s to describe the parley between traders and indigenous people in West Africa. It’d be a fun thought experiment to explain how “negotiation” came to mean “empty small talk”.
P.S. If you want even more beautiful sentences, check out this blog that I follow.