Category Archives: Ravynn: Act 2

Week 13 or How to Write a Comps List

So, first things first: what are Comps?

Comps, short for Comprehensive Exams, is the next step after you finish coursework, at least in my program. Comprehensive Exams assess your knowledge of your chosen fields of study, whether you know the main arguments, can assess them, weave them together, and explain them effectively. Most people have told me to think about my Comps in terms of fields I would one day like to teach. The number of fields vary, but most people do one major field, and one to two minor fields of study.

Second: How are you tested?

In my program, I create a list of books (the number varies) which you think exemplify the major arguments and discussions of your field and work with a professor or two on each list. Specifically, my major field is African American Literature: as this is a big field, I plan on breaking it up into two lists and working with two different faculty members on each list. My minor fields are Comics and Media Studies and African American Intellectual History Since Reconstruction. When it is time for your exams, each of the professors you worked with on lists will ask you to answer essay questions, to which you will have six hours to respond.

Summary: 3 fields of study, 4 lists, 50-70 books per list, 4 exams, 6 hours each, plus an oral exam.

Third: Wait, so you have to read, like, 200-300 books? How long do you have to do that?

Yeah, pretty much. Technically, I can start reading after I pass my Comps Colloquium which will take place at the end of September of this year, leaving me around eight months to read all 200-300 texts. But I will still be in course work, so reading extra material will be difficult. I’ve been working on my Comps lists all semester in the attempt of getting at least two lists finalized so I can start reading over the summer.

Finally: So, how do you write your lists?

I can’t tell you exactly how do this but what I can give you is a set of advice on how I’ve been going about it thus far:

  • First, think of your lists as a bibliography. Pick a formatting style you like, and list your books in accordance with that style. (I chose to do mine in Chicago. It will also save you time to cite properly the first time when you start putting books on your list. I had to redo mine.)
  • Second, when you first start thinking about comps, the best thing I can suggest to you to do is to open a word document and jot down books that inspire you from class, books that you want to read, books that you think are fascinating and important but didn’t quite grasp the first time through.
  • Third, when it’s time to get serious about writing your lists:
    • Add books from your to-read list
    • Go through your syllabi for books that were particularly relevant to your fields of study
    • Use Amazon! Look through the “People who have selected this book have also liked…” section. I found a lot of great books that way that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
    • Ask to see your peers and All But Dissertation (ABD) students to see their lists if they have similar fields as you.
    • Check online to see if your school (or other schools) posts sample comps lists and check those out for inspiration.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask professors for book suggestions, even if they aren’t working with you on your fields, specifically.
    • Most important of all, when you start working seriously, don’t forget to put on some music! Putting together what is essentially a bibliography can be long, tedious and thankless work. It takes time and bumpin’ music always helps me get pumped up to work on my lists. (I’ve been listening to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy while working on my lists.)
  • Fourth, be prepared to go through several drafts of your lists. You will work with your advisor to represent your field, which may take more than one try.

So, there you have it. My not at all comprehensive guide to writing comps lists. My main piece of advice is to just keep plugging away at it. It won’t come together all at once. 200-300 books is a lot, and the texts you chose are important. Set aside a little time every week to update your lists. If you add to your lists little by little each week, your lists will come together in no time.

Week 12, or How to Handle the End of the Semester Without Burning Out

If you’re reading this, more than likely you are where I am right about now: in the midst of classes ending, staring at a vast sea of papers to write and books to read. You might be wondering how am I going to juggle readings for class but also finish the semester out with strong papers and preserve my mental health?

I definitely do not have all the answers, but what I can provide is a guide to how I’ve survived the last three semesters and the push for final papers.

  1. Put your health first. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat, you’re resting enough and you’re emotionally supported. The fact of the matter is that you cannot be productive if you are not physically able to.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you don’t meal prep, maybe try it out during finals season, or at least cooking in bulk. Save yourself time and always have some fresh food around when you don’t feel like cooking or going out.
  2. Create a Schedule. When I’m about a month out from the end of classes, the first thing I do is create a schedule. I figure out when all my final papers are due, and then map out how much I need to write per week, at minimum, to reach my page minimums for the end of the semester.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Write your schedule down. Put it in a notebook, in an app, on google calendars, but put it somewhere that you will see it so that you will hold yourself accountable.
  3. Start Early. We are so past the time when we could write papers the night before and get an A.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Start early to give yourself as much time and space to work as possible.
  4. Set Goals for Yourself. In the same space where I create my schedule, I also create weekly and daily goals for myself. If, at the end of a week, I want ten pages written, I set a goal for two pages per day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Don’t forget to reward yourself for reaching goals, and be kind to yourself if you don’t get as much done as you’d hoped.
  5. Work on a Little at a Time. As I mentioned in Step 4, I break my weekly goals into smaller, workable pieces that I can do in one day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Setting my mind to working on two pages rather than trying to just tackle 25 pages is much more manageable.
  6. Get Drafts to Your Professors, if Possible. Many of my professors offer to read drafts, which is why you should (step 3) START EARLY.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you can get feedback on your work, you should!
  7. Peer Review. If your professors do not read drafts, read each other’s work! Just getting a fresh pair of eyes on something you’ve been working on for weeks can do wonders for your piece.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Form writing groups with your colleagues. It’s a great way to hold each other accountable and also get feedback on your work.
  8. Leave Enough Time for Edits. Even though getting words on the page can be the hardest part, editing can take an even greater amount of time.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Make sure that you start writing early enough that you can take a week or even a few days, to sleep on your words to make sure that you’re saying everything you need to say.
  9. TAKE BREAKS. Circling back to Step 1, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to conserve your energy, not blow it all at once.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Watch Netflix. Go to the gym. Take a walk. Play with an animal. Chat with your friends about something other than what you’re working on. If you’re close to family, visit with your family– if not, maybe FaceTime them.

The most important thing to remember is that this too shall pass. Do your very best but take care of yourself in the process. As long as your priorities are straight, everything will be just fine.

Week 11, or Finding the Right Mentor for You

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time with one of my faculty mentors from the University of Virginia, Professor Claudrena Harold. As always, I learned a lot from listening to her speak, the passion she has for working with undergraduate students, and making sure that she’s being true to her intellectual and artistic vision when pursuing a history. I am always in awe of the way that she pursues certain forms to tell certain stories and I hope that when the time comes, I can be as inventive in my own scholarship.

My time with Professor Harold got me thinking about mentorship and advising relationships, as well as how to find the right people for you. So I thought I’d offer a short post on questions to consider when finding an advisor.

  • First, ask yourself what you need from an advisor or a mentor. This might be difficult. You might not know immediately what you need, in particular if you’re negotiating a new space. I know for me, I came in with one advisor who was particularly tough and in all honesty, I wasn’t ready for her. As a student freshly graduated from undergrad, I needed someone to be a little milder with me. I needed pep talks. I needed guidance, assurance and affirmation, so I picked a different advisor. Now that I’m almost two years deep in my program, I feel I can handle the toughness that will make my work the best and sharpest that it can be, so I’m considering switching back to my first advisor.
  • Second, see who you gravitate towards organically. The person you are assigned or who you pick when you first arrive in graduate school simply may not be the best person to advise you. You pick these people often based on similar research interests, but they may not cater to you in other ways. Take your first semester, or even your first year, to see if there are any professors you find yourself drawn to, even if your research interests don’t align perfectly. See who takes a genuine interest in you. Those professors are often going to be the ones to guide you with the most compassion.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to switch it up. As I’ve mentioned previously, you may need different people in different stages of your journey. Who was great for you during coursework, may not be the person to get you through comprehensive exams, and they may not be the person to get you through your dissertation. Different stages may necessitate different types of assistance.
  • Fourth, don’t be afraid to look outside of your immediate program for mentorship. Some of the best mentors I’ve had have come from outside my actual program of study. (Professor Harold being one of them; I was a French major in undergrad and she was a professor of history and African-American studies.)
  • Bonus: If you can find someone who caters to you emotionally, but also provides you with excellent feedback in a timely fashion, signs all your forms for you, and helps you make connections HOLD ON TO THEM TIGHT. More often than not, you may not have an advisor who can do all of that; you might have different professors that provide you with different things and together create the perfect mentor.

I believe the key to all of this is knowing what you’d like in a mentor or an advisor, but this takes some time to discover. For me, I like someone that is firm on deadlines, but lenient when necessary; that gets me good feedback in a timely fashion; that, in essence is dependable, but also can be gentle with me when I’m feeling the sting of imposter syndrome and the urge to drop out of grad school. I also like to have someone who can empathize with my experiences as a Black woman in the Academy, but I don’t often have those people to choose from in my current environment.

Keep in mind that everything that I offer up as advice has been my personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. All of these suggestions may work for you when deciding on a mentor or advisor, or they may be entirely useless. Whatever the case may be, I do hope that on your journey, you find people, in your field or elsewhere, that can provide the necessary support that you personally need in order to be successful in your journey.