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Cambridge, MassachusettsEarly February2000
“It would appear that we are nearly out of time,” Janine Silva said, eying her vintage Spiro Agnew wristwatch, and Connie Goodwin’s vision blurred with a surreal sense of déjà vu.
For six years, every major event of her graduate student life had taken place in this room. The new student welcome reception was held here—Connie had worn flip-flops, of course, which was appalling, but true. Her reading seminars were taught here. Her oral exams—the longest four hours of her life, so stressful that she had basically blocked them out the moment they were over. That was here too. Her practice job talk, before a panel of fellow doctoral candidates each wanting to ask a question more probing and picayune than the next, also here. And the dreadful, stultifying holiday parties, year after year, which she’d attended mainly so that she and her roommate Liz Dowers—Liz of the half-dimple smile and ability to actually lecture in medieval Latin—could make off with the cheese platter at the end. Years and years she had spent trapped in this room, like Theseus in the Labyrinth, an endless vista of sameness around this one conference table. And then, all at once, never again. Not since her final defense. In, what? 1995. Five years. A long time. And not a long time at all.
The room itself was essentially the same as she remembered. Pitted conference table, with a few fresh pairs of initials here and there, tattooed into the wood with ballpoint pen. The same stained blackboard, now hidden behind a freestanding whiteboard with an announcement for an undergrad study break next week—free pizza!—in blue dry-erase marker. The same white-whiskered portrait of an anonymous old man, gazing boringly out at his own receding importance. The same grimy window, with the same shutters, now pinned open to catch what remained of the thin winter light. Four in the afternoon, and already almost dark. February was the cruelest month in New England.
Janine Silva, chair of the newly renamed Committee on Degrees in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, folded her hands in front of her and smiled at the faces assembled around the table.
“I believe we have time for one more question,” Professor Silva said. “Who would like to do the honors?”
Janine looked expectantly into each face in turn. To Janine’s left, Marcus Hayden, specialist in African American history, newly lured from Dartmouth with tenure and, it was rumored, a house in Belmont for him and his wife and four (four!) children. Marcus was a superstar. He’d gotten the Bancroft history prize with his first book (first!), and he appeared regularly as a commentator on cable news networks. He was the kind of guy Connie found herself thinking about in parenthetical interjections (a Bancroft!). If he had any shortcoming at all, it was that Marcus knew he was a superstar. He’d barely acknowledged Connie when she came into the room. He was cordial to Janine, but in an aloof, superstarish way. He had no notes in front of him, and was also looking at his watch—an expensive one. Well-cut sport coat and no tie. Too handsome for a tie. He had already moved on from this otherwise unmemorable afternoon. No way would the last question come from him.
To Janine’s right, Professor Harold Beaumont leaned back in his library chair, eyelids heavy, fingers knitted over his sweatered belly. Professor Beaumont had published a thousand-page Civil War monograph twenty-one years ago, with a university press that listed it for sale in hardcover at a cost of eighty-nine dollars (all but guaranteeing it would never be adopted for any course), and then he’d settled into tenure with comfortable indifference. Connie doubted he remembered having been on her own orals committee. Or if he did, he didn’t much care. He passed his days teaching one seminar a year, generally consisting of no more than four students at a time (they all had to buy his book), writing a regular column for the National Review, and going on cable news shows, though not the same channels as Professor Hayden. He had notes between his hands, the selfsame typewritten ones that he took to every examination like this one, but Connie was reasonably certain that he was about to fall asleep.
On the opposite side of the table, eyes wide, buttoned into an ill-fitting navy blue blazer that had the look of being borrowed from a friend, radiating the vibrating crackles of panic that perhaps Connie alone around the table could remember having felt, sat the reason for this gathering—a young, curly-headed graduate student named Esperanza Molina. Zazi, to her friends. Enduring the longest four hours of her entire life up to this point. Five pounds skinnier from months of studying. Light-headed, desperate for escape. Hands tightly folded, thumbs crossed as if in prayer. Her eyes met Connie’s and begged, Please let this be over.
“I’ll do it,” Connie said.
Janine beamed. “Professor Goodwin? By all means. Go ahead.”
“Miss Molina.” Connie leaned her elbows on the table and looked pointedly at the young woman—girl, really. Grad students looked younger to Connie every year. “Would you kindly provide the committee with a concise but complete history of witchcraft in North America?”
The second hand ticked on Connie’s watch. And kept ticking. It ticked long enough that Connie noticed it ticking. Her question was meant to be a lob. An easy tossup that Zazi could smash into the corner of the court—Connie had never actually played tennis, but same difference—and go out of her oral qualifying exam with a bang. This was a gimme question. Zazi’s eyes were open so wide that Connie could almost see the whites around her irises. What was happening in there? Was Zazi hunting through all her mental index cards—she probably didn’t use index cards, none of the grad students did anymore—shuffling through drawer after drawer, looking for the answer and finding them empty? What would Connie do if Zazi couldn’t answer? She would have to throw her a life preserver. Give her a hint or something.
Connie glanced at the other professors around the table, weighing how a life-preserver hint would go down, and what it might mean for Zazi passing the exam. Janine would probably let it slide. Maybe. Depending on how she felt about Zazi’s writing. Harold? Oh, he wouldn’t care, would he? Unless he felt like causing a problem just because he could. Connie wouldn’t put it past him. Plenty of professors—more than she’d like to acknowledge—took more pleasure from exercising their power over their students than they did in seeing their students succeed. She glared at him as she thought this, but he didn’t notice. And what about Marcus? His lips pressed together, flattening his mouth. Dammit. No way would he give Zazi a pass. No freaking way.
Zazi straightened in her chair, drawing her shoulders back and lifting her chin. She looked from one professor’s face to another, settling at last on Connie.
“Northeast, South, or Southwest?” Zazi said.
* * *
The Harvard graduate student of American history, as Zazi was, and as Connie had been, must demonstrate mastery of a dizzying array of facts, details, arguments, and agencies of staggering obscurity before being advanced to candidacy for the doctorate. This demonstration took place before a panel of professors, each chosen by the graduate student to form a committee carefully balanced between the competing interests of mentorship, influence, power, and ego. From Connie’s perspective, Zazi had chosen well. Two senior people, of differing politics and spheres of influence. A young superstar. And a young not-exactly superstar. Also of differing politics. And certainly different spheres of influence. Connie had never been invited on any cable news programs. Not a lot of call for commentary on early American colonial religious history on cable news. Thank God.
The questions Zazi had gotten that afternoon had been par for the course, and as wretched as any oral exam Connie had ever presided over. Discuss, if Zazi would, the major themes and publication details of some of the most widely disseminated escaped-slave narratives circulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In what ways, would Zazi say, did the Antinomian Crisis find expression in the political and religious organization of the European colonies? Would Zazi please describe the first Wedgwood ceramic pattern put into mass production, and its importance in the history of American class signification and practices of consumption?
Awful. Just awful. Though Connie thought she was doing okay so far. Maybe not awesome, but totally fine. Connie glanced at Marcus again under her eyelashes.
Maybe not fine. Hmmm.
Zazi needed Connie, and not just for the lob. Zazi had come to Harvard straight out of the Plan II honors program at the University of Texas, and she intended to study American colonial history. She also had a secondary interest in syncretic and folk religions of the South and Southwest, specifically Hoodoo, Vodun, and Santería. Connie was doing her best to steer Zazi away from a dissertation on that, though. Hard to get a job with that topic. No university teaching positions listed “occult expertise a plus” after “Ph.D. required.”
As Connie knew well.
Zazi had arrived in Cambridge owning zero sweaters, breezed through her coursework, had frozen her first winter, bought two sweaters, and had been all set to sit for her oral exams on time when her plans had collapsed into wreckage around her. Steven Hapsburg, assistant professor of early colonial American history and Zazi’s advisor, had been denied tenure and would be leaving Harvard at the end of the semester. Rumor had it he was leaving academia altogether and moving to Puerto Rico to live on a boat. (Smart move.)
Hapsburg had come to Harvard in 1994, replacing Connie’s own advisor, Manning Chilton, when Chilton suffered an abrupt, appalling, career-ending distemper. Hapsburg was young, and earnest, and straight out of the University of Delaware with a studious dissertation on Connecticut shield-back chairs. He loaded up with courses and advisees and tutorials and got involved in residential life and published three articles (one in American Quarterly, even. American Quarterly!), got his book under contract with a decent university press, and then—kablooey.
Hapsburg’s ignominious departure should have come as a surprise to exactly nobody. Harvard’s history department hadn’t tenured a junior faculty member since the 1950s. They preferred to hire superstars from peer institutions, to be guaranteed they were getting the best. (Marcus Hayden, Exhibit A.) But no one had bothered to tell Zazi that.
One night the previous November Connie had been sitting her in office at Northeastern, a pile of one hundred and fifty blue-book midterm exams on her desk, already two weeks past when she’d promised her United States Survey 1580–1860 undergrads she’d have the exams back, starting her fourth mug of coffee for the day and drumming on her head with a pencil, when her office phone rang.
It was Janine Silva.
Copyright © 2019 by Katherine Howe