Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Oral Exam

Last Wednesday I underwent a rite of passage called orals, which is mandatory in order to graduate from the English M.A. program at Georgetown (though the thesis itself is not actually required). My chosen topic was Late 19th-century Anglo-Brazilian Relations in Literature. That's a long title but I'll try to condense the main idea.

Britain decided that after Brazil became independent in 1822 it needed the equivalent of a mother country to replace Portugal. For about 75 years, Brazil was part of what certain members of English Parliament were calling "Greater Britain." Basically, Britain reserved the right to tell Brazil how to run its government and how to conduct itself as a people. Despite religious, linguistic, and cultural differences (not to mention something called the Atlantic Ocean), Britain became Brazil's "best friend" which Brazil paid for in favors and treaties. Britain dominated Brazil economically but also attempted to impose their moral ideologies by enforcing an abolition of the slave trade. Brazil began to resent long years of unequal international relations while Britain struggled to understand why Brazil was not more cooperative.

In their literature, Brazilian writers often cast Europeans as their villains, usually French or English, but almost never Portuguese. (Americans have often cast their own "mother country" as the villains, a la English accents in Star Wars.) In Brazilian literature, Englishmen are drinkers, subtly aggressive, more interested in trade and inventions than women or friends, and deeply irreligious. English writers describe Brazil as a beautiful and rich landscape almost bereft of people. When English literature depicts Brazilians they are lazy, superstitious, unintelligent, and ignorant or poor, black slaves. One English traveler said that Brazil is a large untended garden overgrown with weeds in need of a more nurturing and careful caretaker.

It makes me wonder how history will represent the dominant powers of our modern world. Are large, powerful nations justified in imposing their ideology? Should they do it all over the world wherever a nation or organization hurts innocents or only against nations that are perceived as a threat to their own people? It makes me wonder why the United States attacks some nations, then leaves others alone that perform the same crimes against humanity or that pose a similar threat. What is the reason and rationale for our biases? What is the rubric for our "most wanted list"?

For my orals I presented my findings for 20 minutes; then my two advisors (Prof. Schwarz from the English department and Prof. Vieira from the Portuguese department) asked questions and bounced ideas off me. I think my presentation was dribble for the first 5 minutes but after the butterflies settled down it went more smoothly. I must say I am really glad that Prof. Vieira was there. Instead of asking questions, she contributed to the arguments I was making and made them that much stronger. After an hour and a half of this they sent me out in the hall so they could deliberate about whether or not I passed....

It's a strange and scary five minutes sitting in the hall waiting to see if what you've been studying for the past 6 months means anything, if it makes any sense. I ran into a friend a month or two ago who looked positively ill while he waited and didn't even notice me until I said hi. Thankfully, when the door opened Profs. Schwarz and Vieira were smiling and immediately congratulated me on passing. I can't tell you how nice it is to have orals out of the way.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I'm glad you passed. I can't imagine doing something that big.