Tag Archives: American Studies

Week 13 or How to Write a Comps List

So, first things first: what are Comps?

Comps, short for Comprehensive Exams, is the next step after you finish coursework, at least in my program. Comprehensive Exams assess your knowledge of your chosen fields of study, whether you know the main arguments, can assess them, weave them together, and explain them effectively. Most people have told me to think about my Comps in terms of fields I would one day like to teach. The number of fields vary, but most people do one major field, and one to two minor fields of study.

Second: How are you tested?

In my program, I create a list of books (the number varies) which you think exemplify the major arguments and discussions of your field and work with a professor or two on each list. Specifically, my major field is African American Literature: as this is a big field, I plan on breaking it up into two lists and working with two different faculty members on each list. My minor fields are Comics and Media Studies and African American Intellectual History Since Reconstruction. When it is time for your exams, each of the professors you worked with on lists will ask you to answer essay questions, to which you will have six hours to respond.

Summary: 3 fields of study, 4 lists, 50-70 books per list, 4 exams, 6 hours each, plus an oral exam.

Third: Wait, so you have to read, like, 200-300 books? How long do you have to do that?

Yeah, pretty much. Technically, I can start reading after I pass my Comps Colloquium which will take place at the end of September of this year, leaving me around eight months to read all 200-300 texts. But I will still be in course work, so reading extra material will be difficult. I’ve been working on my Comps lists all semester in the attempt of getting at least two lists finalized so I can start reading over the summer.

Finally: So, how do you write your lists?

I can’t tell you exactly how do this but what I can give you is a set of advice on how I’ve been going about it thus far:

  • First, think of your lists as a bibliography. Pick a formatting style you like, and list your books in accordance with that style. (I chose to do mine in Chicago. It will also save you time to cite properly the first time when you start putting books on your list. I had to redo mine.)
  • Second, when you first start thinking about comps, the best thing I can suggest to you to do is to open a word document and jot down books that inspire you from class, books that you want to read, books that you think are fascinating and important but didn’t quite grasp the first time through.
  • Third, when it’s time to get serious about writing your lists:
    • Add books from your to-read list
    • Go through your syllabi for books that were particularly relevant to your fields of study
    • Use Amazon! Look through the “People who have selected this book have also liked…” section. I found a lot of great books that way that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
    • Ask to see your peers and All But Dissertation (ABD) students to see their lists if they have similar fields as you.
    • Check online to see if your school (or other schools) posts sample comps lists and check those out for inspiration.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask professors for book suggestions, even if they aren’t working with you on your fields, specifically.
    • Most important of all, when you start working seriously, don’t forget to put on some music! Putting together what is essentially a bibliography can be long, tedious and thankless work. It takes time and bumpin’ music always helps me get pumped up to work on my lists. (I’ve been listening to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy while working on my lists.)
  • Fourth, be prepared to go through several drafts of your lists. You will work with your advisor to represent your field, which may take more than one try.

So, there you have it. My not at all comprehensive guide to writing comps lists. My main piece of advice is to just keep plugging away at it. It won’t come together all at once. 200-300 books is a lot, and the texts you chose are important. Set aside a little time every week to update your lists. If you add to your lists little by little each week, your lists will come together in no time.

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.

Week 4, or Meeting Henry Jenkins

One of my favorite things about being in grad school is getting to meet people. Through conferences, public seminars and video calls, I’ve gotten to meet amazing people, including quite a few authors whose work I’ve come across in course work. Within just the last two weeks, I’ve been able to talk with Dr. Johnnetta Cole (a post about that experience can be found here) and, this past week, Dr. Henry Jenkins.

I first encountered Henry Jenkins’s work as an undergrad in a required critical theory course for my Comparative Literature major at the University of Virginia. After stuffing my head full of Althusser, Freud, and Barthes all semester, I distinctly remember finally being able to breathe– I could finally read an article once and get the gist of it. Not only did I understand, I was enthralled by his discussion of fan culture. As an avid Tumblr user at the time, I didn’t know that there were people who studied and talked about communities in which I belonged. Jenkins was my key to understanding that not everything academic had to be dense and difficult to engage.

My second encounter with Jenkins’s work was just last semester in my New Media, Old Media class, in which we read Convergence Culture. As we read through case studies of collective participation through Survivor spoilers and political activism through Harry Potter, I found myself again utterly inspired by the clarity of Jenkins’s prose and the innovativeness of his ideas. My ideas were no longer an island. Through Jenkins I found a way to ground my work and a model for moving forward.

Getting to meet Dr. Jenkins in person, therefore, was quite an experience. Liz Losh, my professor and mentor through the Equality Lab, arranged for a group of us to have a private lunch with Dr. Jenkins, during which we had an informal conversation. The conversation produced questions such as how do you stay true to yourself as you pursue work as a scholar? How do you withstand disappointment and critique? Do you have any writing tips? All questions to which Jenkins had generous and “therapeutic” answers. He told us all writing is rewriting, encouraged us to write with colleagues and develop an online presence. He told us about his personal experiences with being openly and somewhat hostilely critiqued and encouraged us to take a high road– engage, cautiously, and look for points of commonality and misunderstanding rather than investing yourself in a counter attack. And most importantly, I think, he encouraged us to think of doing interdisciplinary work as “undisciplined,” in the best way. This means that we should not limit ourselves based on discipline but follow our interests as far as they take us, borrowing from whatever toolkits we have available, using whomever we find inspiring, to come up with exciting new ideas. Strictly following the rules of any one discipline will only get us so far. We are the intellectual entrepreneurs. We are the undisciplined.

That night, after the excellent lunch, I attended Jenkins’s public lecture in which he discussed the civic imagination, its functions and results. It was a multifaceted presentation which drew from a broad range of sources: from Foucault to Stuart Hall, Superman to J. K. Rowling, Black Panther to Ms. Marvel. In essence, the talk encouraged us, the audience, to think of the civic imagination as something that can help better the world: it can help us imagine a process of change, imagine the self as a civic agent, and imagine the experiences and perspectives of others. This is what helps us go out into the world and create better futures based on what we have imagined.

Dr. Henry Jenkins is a self-proclaimed optimist. It was refreshing to encounter someone so celebratory after learning to do nothing but critique for a year and a half. He’s inspired me not to give up on my ambition to become a public intellectual, because public-facing academics are what we need. He reminded me to think of the real root of the word that will become my career: professor, or one who professes. Knowledge is not mine to hoard but something which I profess. Now that is something I can believe in.