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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.

Let the Games Begin…

I start my exams tomorrow at 10 AM.

I have four exams to take, six hours in which to take each of them, spread over four days, adding up to a total of 24 hours of testing.

Schedule:

Monday, April 29: African American Intellectual History

Tuesday, April 30: Comics & Media Studies

Wednesday, May 1: off day

Thursday, May 2: African American Literature, pt. 1

Friday, May 3: African American Literature, pt. 2

I’m already tired, y’all.

But I will see this through. So many people believe in me and my ability to do this but most importantly, I believe in myself.

I’m thinking about what I’m feeling right now and for the most part, the inside of my head feels remarkably calm. I feel at peace. I want to attribute that to the care I took this week to feed my soul and rest my body and mind. I did all kinds of fun things: I got to meet my littlest friend, I took myself out to see Avengers: Endgame,  and I beat out my anxiety on some drums at the Lemon Project Drum Circle. I was on a panel about grad school, hung out with my friends and did several face masks. And today, I spent a few hours in Charlottesville, surrounded by some of the people I love and admire most in this world.

Yeah, I reviewed a little bit each day, but I was mostly concerned with keeping myself calm and steady, because the more I pushed myself, the less likely it was that I’d be in the mental state to actually take the test. I read for five months; I read over 250 things. I know this material. All I have to do now is show my committee I know it. It was more important this last week to cultivate a positive energy and do only that which enhanced my mood and confidence rather than try to read a dozen more books.

I’m ready.

Let the games begin.

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.