Category Archives: Readings

Week 3: Comprehensive Exams Advice

As I approach the end of coursework for my Ph.D. program, it’s now time to start worrying about what I’m calling “Phase 2”: Comprehensive Exams. I’ve written before about what these exams are and how I prepare for them, but still found myself nervous about this next phase.

So I did what anyone would do in my situation: I asked for advice. I put out a call for people’s best comprehensive exam advice on Twitter and Instagram; I even e-mailed a few old friends. What follows is the tips and tricks I’ve collected from various friends and followers:

On Preparing for the Exam (Studying, Note Taking, Etc):

Matthew Teutsch: “For one of my areas, Rhetoric and Composition, I entered my PhD program not knowing anything about classical rhetoric. After taking a class that covered Augustine to Nietzsche, I, along with most of the others in the class, were utterly confused. To help us get caught up on classic rhetoricians, we decided to form a study group. We went through the anthology, reading each text, and commenting on each one. Then, we met, like a book club, to discuss. Honestly, that helped me on that comprehensive exam more than anything else.”

Jan Huebenthal: “Take good notes, each with a concrete example, and no more than one page per book!”

Amanda Gibson: “Do something physical between books for the mind and body!”

Maggie DePond (@AcademicAuntie): “For oral exams: meet with professors in your committee early and often. A lot of my committee asked me questions that were the same ones we talked about in their office!”

Amanda Roberts (@phdproductivity): “Get a study buddy if you know someone taking exams at the same time as you! My friend and I made ourselves a syllabus of readings with due dates for discussion. Keep all your notes organized in a shared folder on Dropbox or Google Drive.”

@genuinely_jo: “Obvious but it never hurts to be reminded. Back up your work in a couple different places.”

Sarah Thomas, PhD: “Think of prepping for comps as your full-time job. Start working at 8 or 9 am, take a half hour lunch, then get back to work till 5 or 6 pm, then stop. Your brain needs a break in the evening. I watched a lot of cheerful British television. Try to get to bed by 11 at the latest, then wake up and start the process over again the next day. Getting into a routine and compartmentalizing that process was how I got through it. My dog and I got into a pattern of working, walking, eating, working, walking, etc. Routine helped me deal with the impossibility of the situation—how could I actually get through hundreds of books while still being mentally okay?”

On Taking the Exam:

Matthew Teutsch: “For the orals, I would just suggest looking over the graders’ comments and looking at places where you need to show more knowledge and understanding of a question or concept. If it is a timed exam, you won’t be able to say everything you want to say, so this would be a good time to do that. I would also ask around to see what your committee members might ask. Sometimes they will oblige, sometimes not. If they don’t, ask other colleagues who have had those members in their orals. Finally, talk with your professors and ask them questions. You can gather from these questions what they expect you to know and possibly how they expect you to answer.”

Zanovia Tucker, MA, LPC, NCC: “Don’t stress about what’s going to be on the test. You’ve been preparing for two years during coursework.”

Vineeta Singh, Ph.D.:

1. You don’t have to know everything. I was really scared of being asked a question that I wouldn’t know the answer to. Like what if they asked me about something I hadn’t read about? Or what if they asked about that one book that I read first year and never got back to? So it really helped me during prep to be reminded that the point of the exam isn’t to show that you have mastered every bit of research ever produced (that would be impossible!) but to show that you have a broad base of knowledge for your field and the capacity to do research in it.

2. It’s not just a test, it’s an opportunity to get feedback! Okay, I do hear how corny that sounds, but it’s true! How often do you (or any scholar) get to convene 3-6 scholars whose work you respect and have them engage with YOUR thoughts?! That is pretty dope! There are people out here thirsting for feedback, so don’t sleep on what an opportunity this is! If you have had success building a committee that’s truly invested in you as a scholar, they are going to take advantage of this opportunity to challenge you in GENERATIVE ways. The ‘exam’ setup can feel adversarial or confrontational, and many profs take that role very seriously, but (and I might just be spoiled because of my E[nthic] S[tudies] background) at its best, this is a CONVERSATION and a chance for you to shape your future work. So (if you have a supportive committee) don’t get defensive; this is your team.

Some Pep Talks:

Dana Cypress: “You always know more than you think you know by the time your comps date arrives. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves quite enough credit but if you’ve done the work, it’ll show.”

Holly Grunter: “Take it one day at a time! Every day you’ll be motivated differently. Be kind to yourself!”

Ramya Avadhanam, Ph.D.: “Remember that you’re more prepared than you think! So when you get nervous, believe in yourself and your skills!”

James Padilioni, Jr, Ph.D.: “Make sure you look up from the trees to glimpse the beauty of the forest: try to enjoy reading these books, and the opportunity you have, maybe for the only time in your life, to just sit down and read, expand your mind, and to tarry with some of the thinkers on your list. The aggressive schedule of reading makes it hard to appreciate the privilege afforded by it all. Oh and also, on the back end after everything sifts and settles, you’re going to be (even more) knowledgeable AF and have the receipts to prove it if need be!”


There you have it, folks, some of the best comprehensive exam advice from people who have either been through it or are in the midst of the storm as we speak. I want to take this moment to thank those who offered their advice, and to say that whether comps are impending, or a ways off, I hope this was as helpful to you as it was to me.

Black Girl Does Oxford

by Kristen Barrett

Sometimes chasing your childhood dreams exposes you to some mind-rattling realities. You dream of writing a young adult novel only to learn about the competitive world of publishing. You dream of pursuing a Hollywood acting career only to learn about the “casting couch.” You dream of attending a prestigious United Kingdom university only to learn about its paucity of black students.

I distinctly remember the first time my mother mentioned the Rhodes Scholarship to me, a bright-eyed eighth grader in love with Jane Austen. In those days, I daydreamed about the British countryside and imagined myself studying Chaucer at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.

Fast forward to my matriculation as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. I set my sights on a more immediate goal: attending the UVA in Oxford Summer Program. The Jefferson Scholar Foundation pays for every scholar to participate in one study abroad program the summer before their junior year, and from the moment I heard about UVA in Oxford, I knew that would be the program for me. Luckily, the head professor accepted me into the program, and I arrived at University College on July 1 filled to the brim with excitement.

Approaching the other UVA students, I noticed something immediately. I was the only black student in the program. A familiar feeling churned in my stomach. An engulfing self-awareness that can easily morph into a feeling of empowerment or isolation, responsibility or burden, opportunity or affliction. From this moment, I knew that depending on my attitude I would either feel like a representative of black excellence the program needs or merely a cultural outsider.

This feeling became all too familiar to me in high school. Growing up in my 90 percent white all girls school, I carried this awareness with me every day. Almost always, it would empower me to embrace my racial identity and to explore the joy of pursuing interracial relationships. But sometimes, on those low energy days, it would bury me in insecurity.

When dreaming of Oxford as an eighth grader, I never considered how white such an institution would be. Considering Oxford’s undergraduate numbers, only 2 percent of undergraduate students are black, and some of the colleges go years without accepting more than two black students. I did not consider how the United Kingdom’s identity politics vastly differ from the United States’ or that racism toward blacks exists on both sides of the pond. I did not ask myself: what affects my happiness more, the prestige of the institution or the ethnic makeup of the student body and faculty?

This quandary and its accompanying feeling hung over my head during my first few days at University College. It pushed to the forefront of my mind when I saw that all of the program’s professors were white men. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I noticed the only black people in University College were the ones who served us tea. It caused me to question my place in the program.

The story could end there, but it doesn’t. After receiving some motivational words from my best friend back home, I gave myself an ultimatum. I could waste precious energy worrying over whether I belonged or I could claim my deserved space in the program myself. I chose the latter.

For the rest of my time in the program, I chose empowerment, responsibility, and opportunity over isolation, burden, and affliction. I embraced my status as “the black girl,” and I ran with it. This was one black girl no one was about to forget. I incorporated race relations into my political discussions with my friends; I made allusions to black romantic comedies like The Best Man; and most importantly, I expressed all my idiosyncrasies that come along with me — whether they were stereotypically “black” or not. I was not the spokesperson for my race, but I was the spokesperson for Kristen Rochelle Barrett.

This outlook immediately improved my experience at University College. With my insecurity held at bay, I delved deeply into my course on politics of the European Union, frolicked gleefully around Oxfordshire with my new friends, and to no one’s surprise found that my dream university lived up to all of my expectations. The scholarly college town with Harry Potter style cafeterias and boutique store-lined streets won my heart.

Oxford taught me a lesson in self-confidence. What I like is what I like. Given my love for nineteenth century transatlantic literature, it is highly likely that I will end up in a graduate program with very few black scholars. My experience in Oxford reassured me that I can not only survive but also thrive in such an environment. I do not need to be surrounded with people similar to me in race, religion, gender, etc. in order to flourish as a person. As long as I have a support system of dutiful friends and family, I will blaze trails.


Kristen Barrett is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, where she is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Drama. Her hometown is Nashville, TN. Her favorite black intellectuals are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and her parents. She is passionate about encouraging black girls to pursue higher education, and she wants to attend graduate school herself in order to study depictions of people of African descent in transatlantic nineteenth-century English literature. Only God knows what the future holds, but she is ready for the #BlackGirlMagic!

Fade to Black: Take 2, Food for Art

No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!

I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:

Citizen // Claudia Rankine

I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.

Swing Time // Zadie Smith

This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom.  When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism.  While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.

Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper

Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.

Long Division // Keise Laymon

During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.

Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston 

I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.

I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.

There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.

P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:

Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith

Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire

Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods

Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast

Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar