I had a difficult time wrapping up the master’s portion of the graduate program. The oral examination consisted of topics / questions / issues in the history of philosophy. Even as I think about it now, I’m not exactly sure what it was I was supposed to have expected. I guess what I learned after failing it miserably was that, while my examiners wanted to see what I knew and what I didn’t know, maybe more importantly, they wanted to see whether I was comfortable talking about these topics with them, whether I would respond with expansive enthusiasm.
Now at the time, I was much more comfortable being concise. When one of them asked me a question, I would answer – briefly. No more than thirty minutes in, I started seeing something in their faces, something that said I wasn’t doing well. I pretty much shut down for good. They began asking even easier questions, and mostly all I could say was, “I don’t know.”
So the examiners decided that maybe I would do better with a written exam. About six months later I took it. I thought my ordeal was over – but one of the examiners was not satisfied. So the next remedy was that I should write a master’s thesis. Took about another six months, but I did it – fifty or so pages on the topic of philosophical complementarity. Even then I think the same examiner voted against accepting it – so it passed two votes to one.
That night after the oral exam was easily one of the worst times of my life. I had planned to celebrate passing the exam with a couple of friends over dinner – but I was an absolute mess. I went to my tiny student housing studio apartment, turned off the lights, laid in bed curled up in a fetal position, and cried myself sick. My friends did come by, knocked on my door – but I didn’t answer. They soon figured out that things didn’t go well, yet still wanted to go out, encouraging me, telling me to forget about it, it wasn’t the end of the world. I was inconsolable – it was the end of my world. I was as shell shocked as I had been after I first came back from the seminary in January 1979 – all at once, the world in which I thought I was meant to be was gone.