Category Archives: Readings

A Debrief on Oral Comprehensive Exams

I passed.

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.

It Takes a Village

Well, I’m about a week away from starting my comprehensive exams. I want to take this moment to thank everyone who has encouraged me throughout this process.

Thank you to:

  • My parents, who have patiently listened to me count individual texts that I have left to read, gripe about arguments that don’t make sense and the rants about the possibility of me failing these exams. You both have been so encouraging, letting me know that even though this might be hard, I can do it.
  • My committee: Lynn Weiss, Hermine Pinson, Liz Losh and Mel Ely. Dr. Weiss, thanks for continually talking me off a ledge with these exams and convincing me that I’m going to be okay. Dr. Pinson, thank you for spending time with me despite your busy schedule and taking this on. You’ve really challenged me and worked hard with me to make sure I understand and can articulate the main arguments of my field and for that, I am forever grateful. Dr. Losh, thanks for always believing in me; it means more than you know. Dr. Ely, thank you for encouraging and affirming my sort of left of center ways of thinking, and always letting me express my knowledge the best way I know how.
  • My sister circle: Kelsey, Micah, Alexis and Leah. Y’all have held me up through this process, listened to me complain and moan, and affirmed me on the days I felt like I could actually do this. Thank you for the daily check-ins throughout this process and reminding me to be a human every once in a while.
  • My W&M friends: Chris, Hyunyoung, Khanh, Jennifer R., Jessica, Laura, Jennifer E., and Chardé. Chris, I honestly don’t think I would have gotten this far in the program without you looking out for me, so thanks for all that you do for me out of the kindness of your heart. Hyunyoung, your love and support is everything to me and I hope that next year we actually get to see each other more. Khanh, Jenn, Jessica, my Equality Lab crew, thanks for always supporting me and offering up your time and energy to help me succeed. Laura, one of my newest buds, thank you for being a little ball of sunshine whenever I see you and always offering up support. Jennifer and Chardé, thanks for always commiserating with me and making me laugh. I can’t wait til we can all celebrate our respective accomplishments in May together!
  • Joy Melody Woods Bennett. Girl, your friendship is so important to me. Thank you for always encouraging me. And thank you for the card. It made me smile and I needed that.
  • Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias. There are honestly no words for how loved I felt in the moment I was unpacking the care package you sent me. You saw potential in a girl you didn’t know, who went to your undergrad, who was walking the same path you walked, and decided to invest in her. I can’t wait to do what you did for me for someone else.
  • Leiaka. I have not forgotten that moment of honest to God kindness that you gifted me when I was really struggling in this process. That Indian food was bomb. Thank you.
  • Professor Harold. Thanks for seeing this life for me before I could see it for myself.
  • The Lemon Project Team. Jody, thanks for working it out so I could focus on comps these last few weeks. Sarah, thanks for always listening to me. You’re one of my favorite people, I hope you know that. Vineeta, I just want to be like you when I grow up. Kind, compassionate, but fiercely invested in the quality of my work and the impact it will have on the people around me. Just know that the way you walk through the world is an example for young scholars like me who need someone to look up to. You’re doing the work I want to do someday.
  • Literally everyone (particularly other grad students) who has been in my replies and DMs wishing me good luck on comps. There are entirely too many of you all to name individually, but each of you bring me such joy and I wish you all nothing but the best.
  • The senior scholars who have been encouraging me, particularly Roopika Risam, Karin Wulf, and Jessica Parr. Dr. Risam, thanks for always having a kind word for me. Dr. Wulf, thanks for always reminding me that it’s a process, and that I’ll be okay. Dr. Parr, thanks for always believing in me and my work and connecting me with other scholars and opportunities. You’ve taken me under your wing in a lot of ways, and I’m grateful for it.
  • My BGDGS editorial team, Taylor, Trayc, and Rae’Jean. Thanks for dealing with my last minute posts to be edited and sporadic scheduling while I’ve been preoccupied with comps. Thanks for baring with me.
  • My W&M undergrad friends who always ask me how comps is going whenever I see them: Ka’myia, Zach, Leonor, and Brendan. I know I’m stressing y’all out with my sad tweets but it’ll be over soon!
  • Anyone who has done or said something kind to me since January. You have no idea how one little comment or act can turn someone’s day around.

It takes a village. A village got me to this point and a village will carry me through this storm and out the otherside.

Thanks for everything, y’all.

Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post-Comps

236.

That’s how many monographs, novels, poems, articles and essays I’ve read since starting this process.

I have less than 50 to finish reading.

The fact of the matter, though, is that I’m tired. My brain hurts, I’ve crammed more information into my poor little mind than I ever thought possible, and everything I read at this point seeps out quickly and quietly, like water out of cupped hands. I’ll probably read a few more things, but I’ve mostly switched to making notecards, reading book reviews and going over my notes on a daily basis. At some point soon, I’ll start trying to answer some practice questions.

But most importantly, I’ll rest.

With exams less than a month away, I’ve been daydreaming about what comes after. Sure, I’ll revel in being ABD for a day or two, and I’ll probably sleep for a week straight, but after that? What will I do to celebrate?

I’ve been considering doing a writing retreat. As a scholar, I write all the time: I write (potential) articles and book chapters, abstracts and conferences papers– not to mention these blog posts. I even write a mean e-mail. Still, I miss really writing. I miss doing Nanowrimo every November, my writing challenges with Micah, and developing essays that I’m too shy and nervous to do anything with. I haven’t worked seriously on a novel since 2017 and it’s time. I feel it. As a grad student, funds are tight, but who knows, maybe I could go visit my uncles in Florida for a few days and get some writing done in the southern sunshine.

I have also been putting in some time planning for the 2019-2020 academic year. I have my heart set on being a teaching fellow but we’ll see what happens. I have a draft syllabus for a class that’s beyond my wildest expectations and I can’t wait to share these texts and ideas with a group of students who are willing to learn and work. I’ll be sure to clue you all in as soon as I know if I’m teaching it.

My summer will be full but relaxing. I have some graduations to attend, I’m planning a trip to the University of Victoria for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in June, followed by more rest and a potential for working on my dissertation prospectus so that I can propose it when I return in the fall, and then I’ll wrap things up by serving as the Academic Director of the W&M/Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration August 5th through 20th.

I’m tired, but excited. Only good things ahead.