Category Archives: The Journey

Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

In a previous BGDGS post (“Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post Comps”), I wrote about how I would care for myself after comps. One of my suggestions was to do a writing retreat, but when I imagined this, I figured I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a writing retreat would literally fall out of the sky and into my lap.

And yet it did. William & Mary Libraries hosts a week long writing retreat for faculty in the spring after graduation (and I believe in the winter, too). This was the first time they decided to open it up to a limited number of graduate students and I jumped at the chance. I applied for a spot before I went under my exams rock, and by the next Monday, I was in.

I have been riding a high since I finished and passed comps last Thursday, so this retreat came at a perfect time. I was still so jazzed and energized that I wrote a solid draft of my prospectus* in four days of work, wrote a draft of a 200 word abstract for a journal submission and worked on a strategic plan for a new project I am developing.

In addition to all the good work I’ve been getting done, being a participant of the Writers’ Retreat earned me a swag bag filled with a nice W&M notebook and pen, as well as a travel cup. Not to mention, breakfast and lunch each day were provided. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for any of this? They literally set up ideal conditions in which you have your own private space to work, nourishment, meetings with research librarians if you need them and a pretty steady supply of caffeinated beverages.

Despite being alone in my writing room for hours at a time, I found that I have met a bunch of really amazing people here. Breakfast and lunch are communal, and we share space with a bunch of other faculty retreats happening, including May Seminars, the Film & Media Studies Retreat, and the Coll 100 workshops. So I got to see a lot of faculty that I love, as well as meet new folks, including many of the librarians and a particularly cool Classical Studies professor.

The Provost Fellowship Writing Retreat is also happening this week. A few of my American Studies pals got Provost Fellowships and so they’re here in a different part of the library working away, though I do get to see them upon occasion during lunch.

It’s been a really nice week. I got a lot of writing done and had a lot of good fun with my buds while doing so. I hope to do this again in the future when I’m in the throes of actual dissertating.

William & Mary Libraries was right on time with the Writers’ Retreat– this was the perfect way to jumpstart my summer.

*The prospectus is the next milestone I have to conquer. This is essentially the proposal for your dissertation project. Different programs have different ways of dealing with the prospectus, but at W&M in American Studies, our handbook requires that the prospectus be 3,500-5,000 words (14-20 pages) and it should include: the problem, your intervention, a brief investigation of the fields and studies this work will build upon, an outline of your chapters and the work you seek to do in each section, primary sources you will be drawing from, methodologies, and a timeline for completion. After getting this document approved by my advisor(s) I will then have a colloquium where I will present my prospectus for feedback as I move into the formal dissertation.

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.

A Debrief on Written Comprehensive Exams

Well, I did it.

Four days of testing, 6 hours per exam, 9 questions answered, and 59 total pages written.

I did it.

My brain feels like it has a rubber band wrapped around it, but I got it done.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Someone once told me (hi, Chris!) that it would be relatively anti-climatic after months of studying and preparation. In some ways, it was, but in others, I felt that taking the exams was an excellent culmination of my five semesters of graduate level coursework, and my semester of individual preparatory work. Every morning when I opened my email, I held my breath while I read over my questions, then let out the greatest exhale ever. None of my examiners/committee wanted me to fail, only asking me questions that played to my strengths.

Each morning I got up, showered and cleaned myself up, dressing in my favorite outfits to enhance my good energy. I calmly reviewed my notes and looked over book reviews of texts whose arguments had flown straight out of my head. Then, around 9:30, I made myself some breakfast and set up my testing desk. I wanted to take the exams from the comfort of my home in my comfiest chair so I set up a little TV dinner table as my desk. I gathered supplies– a blank sheet of paper and some pens for outlining. At 9:50, I lit my Black Girl Magic candle and made myself a cup of coffee in my Queen mug, both gifts from Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias, settled into a cozy living room chair and at 10, my questions arrived.

Each day I got 6 hours to do my best idea work and writing. However, as I’ve said, my examiners knew me particularly well and asked me things that they knew I’d have a lot to say about, and in forms that let me flex my creative muscles. I had questions that asked me to write a conversation between some famous figures in the history of the Black intellectual tradition; I wrote a lecture on depictions of race in popular culture (managing to tie in “Homecoming” while I was at it); I imagined designing a lecture on African American literature for a non-American audience (I’m sure my examiner was thinking about my role with the Keio program for the last three years while crafting that question); and I designed a syllabus on modern African American literature. I answered other questions as well, questions that let me explore the impact of Black women writers on African American literature since Zora Neale Hurston, and questions about speculative fiction and currents in the Black intellectual tradition. As anxious as I was about these exams, when I sat down and looked at the questions, I felt my heart swell because I knew the answers. I knew how to answer them. I knew which texts to connect and analyze. It was as if the tangle of 250+ texts just straightened out when I had to put my fingers to my keyboard and type.

It was actually kind of fun.

I never want to do it again, ever– but the process really wasn’t so bad once I adjusted the way I was thinking about it. I saw someone tweet (hi, Shannon!) that someone else had told them to think about the exams as writing days. And we all know I love to write, so that’s what I did. It took some of the pressure off and allowed me to get carried away by my ideas.

Practically speaking, I spent about 30 minutes getting myself organized for writing– selecting the books I wanted to use, jotting down ideas, connecting the dots. Once I had my outline, I just let my fingers fly. I wrote almost every day (in a Googledoc so there was no fear of losing my writing) for at least two and half hours without stopping. I would write until I had exhausted myself, then I would take a break for lunch, catch a second wind and then write for two more hours. I usually started to fade somewhere around 3 o’clock, which is when I’d start to round out my answers, read over everything and edit. I would add a sentence here, delete a sentence there, until it sounded the way I wanted. By 4 o’clock I had, on average, around 15 pages of work that I downloaded from Googledocs into a word document, then attached to the email that the questions had arrived in. I would submit them the moment the clock struck 4 and feel my body slump with pride and exhaustion at having finished another day.

I walked around the house with a mixture of fatigue and satisfaction for a few minutes after submitting each test, riding on the high of finishing, before I started on my relaxation routine. I would have a cider, my drink of choice, call my dad, do a facemask and meditate while the mask was on. Then I would spend some time either mindlessly flipping back and forth between the Vampire Diaries and Gilmore Girls or else reading a few pages in Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always. I’d have dinner then spend a little time looking at notes for the next day. It wasn’t a hard core study session, just a casual flip through notes. Even on my day off, I spent most of my time laying around. I was actually so wound up and buzzing with energy that I was convinced I should’ve just scheduled my exams to go straight through.

Thank God I gave myself that Wednesday break because by Friday at 2, I was crawling to the finish line. I think my answers were good that day, but it was obvious that I was running out of steam. Those were my shortest answers and probably my least well developed.

I wrote as much as I could on that last day and it was the only day that I submitted my answers before 4. I couldn’t look at my writing any more. I had written almost 60 pages total and I was done. I hit send and immediately a blanket of fatigue hit me. I had been running on adrenaline for pretty much the entire week.

I made a celebratory Target run and had dinner out with my parents. I was going to watch Into the Spider-Verse, but the fatigue won. I was out like a light before ten.

Of course, Karin Wulf was right all along: It was the process. Because I had carefully done my work over the last several months, I was more than prepared to take the exam.

I’m thisclose to ABD (All But Dissertation). Just an oral exam standing in my way.

But after surviving this ordeal, I can survive an hour with four people who only want me to succeed. The hard part is over.

And just like Professor Harold tweeted at me, I need to relax, but I won’t: I’m already plotting what comes next.

I’m too eager, too hungry, to relax– not when Ravynn K. Stringfield, Ph.D. is closer than ever.