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.

#KeioChronicles: What I Learned From Teaching Japanese Students

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I had been tweeting using the hashtag #KeioChronicles. This summer (as I did last summer), I was one of three Course Instructors for the Keio/William & Mary Cross Cultural Collaboration. Japanese students from Keio University come to William & Mary for a two week program, which involved lectures on American culture from W&M faculty, dialogue classes, or discussion sections, led by Course Instructors, and group research projects that focus on some aspect of cross-cultural analysis. In addition to all of this, we also took the students on cultural “experiences,” some of which included going to the beach, experiencing American consumption at the Williamsburg Outlets, and attending a baseball game.

My primary role was to lead my class in discussion of the lectures that we had. I helped them formulate questions and did my best to answer them, or at least help them direct their questions to the lecturer of the day, who visited each dialogue class for about fifteen minutes. I was also responsible for grading my students on their participation in class, on the journal entries that they write throughout the program, and on their final research project presentations. And, as if that were not enough, I also drove the vans for the program to get the students from place to place. (We’re talking huge 12 passenger vans.)

I always learn a lot from participating in Keio, whether it be from watching their final presentations, which included topics ranging from the types of ties worn by politicians in American and Japan to differences in elementary education in the two countries, or in my everyday interactions with the students, like taking them to Chick-fil-A for the first time. Last year was particularly heavy because I had to learn how to teach through a tragedy as it was happening. I had to keep it together while white supremacists marched on my former home of Charlottesville. I had to try not to cry when I heard the news that one of them had driven a car into a crowd of people, killing a young woman. But most importantly, I had to learn how to turn tragedy into a teachable moment when it felt like my world was falling apart.

So upon finishing this round of the program, it felt appropriate to come up with a list of things I’ve learned from Keio, my students, and teaching this year.

  1. I learned how to take a bad review. Bad reviews are a part of life, much like rejection, and at first, I’ll admit, reading it stung. In a way, a bad review is a type of rejection– something about your teaching style did not vibe with the writer of the review. I learned, however, not to take a bad review personally.
  2. I learned to not doubt myself. This is related to #1. After taking some time to assess my own work in the classroom, I wondered if someone had finally seen through me and called a spade, a spade. I wondered if I wasn’t knowledgeable. It took me sometime to realize that this wasn’t the case. One negative comment shouldn’t knock me off course. Especially when I had had such a positive impact on all the rest of my students. In fact, I’ll always cherish the kind words one of my students wrote in her journal entry about me and my teaching:
  3. I learned to take advantage of the fact that this is one of the rare moments I’ll be asked to teach something that is not my expertise. While we did have a class on race relations and digital humanities, which is totally my wheelhouse, we also had lectures on business and religion. I had to do a lot of reaching while leading class on these topics, but I chose to look at it as a learning opportunity for myself as well as for my students. I am on a career path that values life long learning, and teaching Keio is one of the few opportunities I have to take advantage of learning completely new things.
  4. I learned that explaining America is one of the toughest feats there is. The nature of this program calls on the Course Instructors to do a lot of explaining– why things are a certain way in American culture. A lot of the time I had to accept that I wouldn’t immediately know the answer; more often than not, they had to accept that the answer was not black and white. My Japanese students had to learn to accept ambiguity, theories, and speculation. I think they are used to being presented with knowledge as cold hard facts, things that cannot be disputed in anyway; I’ve come to discover that knowledge is nebulous and often what I know, even if it is a lot, is usually not the whole story.
  5. I learned as much from my students as they did from me. The questions they asked always kept me on my toes. If I didn’t know, I always challenged myself to find out the answer. They often helped me think about topics in a different way.

Teaching Keio was an adventure: every day was different, with a new topic and new questions. Even when I thought my students would struggle, they surprised me by being engaged, asking amazing questions, and sharing insightful thoughts. They brought a good energy to my class and we learned together in an environment that held as many laughs as thought provoking conversation. Teaching foreign students is truthfully not that different from teaching students from your own country. The main difference is that while teaching students from a different country, you will be forced to reckon with much more of what you take for granted. The very things you accept as true are the things they will want to know more about. The very fabric of your existence, they may know nothing about: I got blank stares when I asked them about whether they had heard of #BlackLivesMatter but they all nodded when I mentioned #MeToo. Suddenly, I was forced to explain a movement in detail that has become the backdrop of my life since 2014 so they could understand the necessity of such a force. I taught them about my America, and in return they attempted to explain Japan to me: why they had heard of #MeToo and not #BlackLivesMatter, whether or not gentrification or some equivalent existed in Japan, and generally why more people don’t protest in Japan. One of my students brought a wonderful Japanese expression to my attention: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

But it was more than just being in the classroom together that brought me joy: it was the moments of watching my students master ordering food at restaurants and trying the spiciest wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. It was our spur of the moment Target trip after lunch, all of our van rides together, and hearing Japanese mixed with English. It was the big things like watching my students dance and sing with unbridled enthusiasm at the Talent Show; it was the little moments like their smiles as they read the notes I wrote them when it was time to say goodbye and all of the pictures we took together that night.


To the Red Dialogue Class–

Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you the best in all your future endeavours.

Love from your teacher,

Ravynn

Black Girl Does Grad School… Eventually

By Branika Scott

Sometimes you know exactly what you want to do in life, you just don’t know when you want to do it. Sometimes you realize you have to take time, not only for logistics, but simply for yourself. As you can see by the title, this is for the black girls who will go to grad school…eventually.

Since I was a child, I’ve loved school. Yeah, not liked… loved it. I loved everything about school and everything that had to do with learning. I was that one kid asking all the questions in class. The girl who dressed up as Condoleezza Rice for the elementary school Halloween parade. When I wasn’t in school, I was at home playing school, taking on the role as teacher to my little siblings. So naturally, from a young age, higher education has always been in my “big picture”.

We all know everything doesn’t always go as planned…

I was filled with hope at the beginning of my last year at the University of Virginia. I’d just had the best summer of my life, and life, in general, was perfect. This was my last year and I was going to make it count with all of the memories that I could. I also started planning for grad school. Although the profession I want doesn’t necessarily require a graduate degree, I always feel one should never stop learning. Also, due to UVA’s unique Drama program, I felt there was way more I could learn within the realm of acting. Grad school applications, along with audition planning was soon in my horizon…or so I thought.

Within my first week of school, I found out I had a heart condition that was not curable. That same week I also ruptured my Achilles’ tendon. These two events completely changed both my life and my path. I was now on bedrest for about three months and medicated heavily for almost two of them. Because of the effects of the medication, I was not reading or writing very much, which meant I wasn’t filling out applications and applying for fee waivers. It also meant I wasn’t looking at dates, locations, and times of auditionsto book. Because I could not walk, this also meant I could not act at full capacity, I could not rehearse, so I would not be able to apply to grad school due to the audition process held inJanuary/ February. I had to put my life on hold, as well as my dreams of grad school.

I’m not going to lie, at first I was devastated. I couldn’t understand why God had allowed this to happen to me in my very last year of undergrad. I cried a lot in the beginning. I felt like I had been robbed of my last semester, as well as all the memories I didn’t get to make. Most of all, I felt hopeless because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life after graduation.

Since I didn’t apply to grad school, I didn’t have a Plan B. But I guess I learned that that’s the point. God has a plan for everything, and His timing is unpredictable to man. This setback made me realize that maybe God was telling me to take a break; maybe God was telling me I needed to take time for myself. I mean, when you think about it, I have been in school for 17 straight years. So I decided this gap year would be my blessing. I decided to stop feeling bad and sorry for how things turned out; I decided to stop feeling scared, and I have decided to follow my dreams.

In my gap year, I’m moving to Los Angeles. I’m going to audition, work, spend some time trying to put myself out there in this acting industry, and see where life takes me. Who knows, maybe I’ll get booked right away on a hit show, maybe I’ll end up moving back to the east coast within a few months, but regardless of where life takes me, I still dream and plan for grad school. No matter what, I still want that Masters Degree with my name on it. And one day, I’ll have it.

So to all my black girls who will eventually go to grad school, don’t feel bad for taking a break first. Don’t be scared of the direction God takes you in life. Everyone’s journey is unique and theirs for the making. You’ll get there when you’re ready, so be free and take your time.


Branika Scott is a recent graduate of the University of Virginia with her BFA in Drama. She is in the process of moving to Los Angeles, where she will pursue her career in acting. Glitter is her spirit animal and gold is her metal of choice.

My attempt at joining the Academy