Not just the written, not just the oral– the whole thing.
I have now advanced to candidacy and am All But Dissertation (ABD).*
*(Note: This distinction varies from program to program. I know a lot of people who aren’t ABD until they defend their prospectus, including some people in a different field at my institution. I think the primary reason I get to declare candidacy and ABD now is because we in American Studies at W&M do not necessarily “defend” a prospectus. You write one, you get it approved by your advisor, and then you meet for a colloquium with a committee for feedback on it, but it’s more of a conversation than a defense.)
I had almost a week between the end of the written exams and the oral. After I did 24 total hours of written testing, my brain stuttered to a complete halt. I knew I should at least try to prepare, but in the end, my preparation consisted of attending Free Comic Book Day, buying ten new books, and sitting in on my friend’s MA defense. As I have said before, there was nothing I could say in an hour that would negate the 24 hours of written testing that I did, nothing particularly new that I could cram in my head beforehand that would make that much of a difference.
I thought about the oral exam as if it were a short class session for which I had done the reading.
It seemed to work for me.
The day before the oral, I was in Target, spending more time than I want to own up to, trying to conceive of the perfect exam outfit. My dad always tells me dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and while that doesn’t work for everyone, for me, it’s solid advice. If I look good, I feel good, then I do good.
After cleaning up and a face mask Thursday morning, I left the house in a black swing dress as a base, a pink, orange, and burgundy color blocked scarf, a bright orange purse and platform sandals. I had done my nails, given myself a pedicure and headed for Aromas with my notes so I could review for a the few minutes I had until the exam started.
With maybe half an hour to go, I made my way to College Apartments to make sure I had all the appropriate paperwork in the event that I passed. I nervously walked around the building, nearly running into my advisor on several occasions.
Then finally, it was time.
Everyone had convened by exactly 11 and I sat at the head of the table in room 5 with my committee around me. I was allowed to pick the order that I received questions, so I started with African American Intellectual History. Dr. Ely definitely scared me a little bit, asking me about specific passages from books that were now fuzzy and ill defined from others, asking me to spin out lines of thoughts I could barely follow, but fortunately many of his questions were leading and when he saw me stumble, he would redirect his question to help me regain some confidence in my answer. I didn’t start having fun until Dr. Pinson asked me about the ‘bonus unit’ I added to the syllabus I created for one of her answers. Essentially, I had created a syllabus of modern African American literature, and added a bonus unit on a Black Women Writers’ Renaissance in the Digital Age, citing writers like Brittney Cooper, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Eve Ewing and Morgan Jerkins to name a few. She asked me to draw connections between these writers and our Black feminist ancestors– and I was off.
After that, I began to settle into myself, answering questions with much more grace. I often stopped myself after talking for a while as I answered, to make sure I was answering the question I had been asked and not just talking off into a corner, as what happened quite a few times as I answered Dr. Losh’s questions.
Before I knew it, there were mere minutes left in the hour long exam and my advisor, Dr. Weiss, simply asked me to reflect on why I had chosen Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to represent African American literature from pre-Civil War. I stumbled over my answer, though ultimately I think I answered well enough.
Then I was asked to leave the room while my committee deliberated. As I stood in the hallway, Chris poked his head over the third floor bannister to ask me how it had gone. I was still recapping when the door opened again and my advisor stepped out to get me.
“Okay, Ms. ABD.” she said with a smile.
I let out a loud “YES!” then re-entered the room so we could do the appropriate paperwork.
I celebrated my latest victory at Nawab immediately afterwards, as one does, surrounded by all my W&M friends. I even showed up at the American Studies pre-graduation celebration later the night. I got the best sleep I had gotten in months.
I had conquered my latest obstacle.
I returned to Suffolk to chants of “ABD! ABD! ABD!” by my father and hugs from my mother.
And though I deserve the most restful of breaks, I’m going to capitalize on my post-comps energy and do the faculty writing retreat starting Monday to start on my prospectus.
Now, I just have to write a dissertation. One step at a time.
One thought on “A Debrief on Oral Comprehensive Exams”