Tag Archives: Comps

Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post-Comps

236.

That’s how many monographs, novels, poems, articles and essays I’ve read since starting this process.

I have less than 50 to finish reading.

The fact of the matter, though, is that I’m tired. My brain hurts, I’ve crammed more information into my poor little mind than I ever thought possible, and everything I read at this point seeps out quickly and quietly, like water out of cupped hands. I’ll probably read a few more things, but I’ve mostly switched to making notecards, reading book reviews and going over my notes on a daily basis. At some point soon, I’ll start trying to answer some practice questions.

But most importantly, I’ll rest.

With exams less than a month away, I’ve been daydreaming about what comes after. Sure, I’ll revel in being ABD for a day or two, and I’ll probably sleep for a week straight, but after that? What will I do to celebrate?

I’ve been considering doing a writing retreat. As a scholar, I write all the time: I write (potential) articles and book chapters, abstracts and conferences papers– not to mention these blog posts. I even write a mean e-mail. Still, I miss really writing. I miss doing Nanowrimo every November, my writing challenges with Micah, and developing essays that I’m too shy and nervous to do anything with. I haven’t worked seriously on a novel since 2017 and it’s time. I feel it. As a grad student, funds are tight, but who knows, maybe I could go visit my uncles in Florida for a few days and get some writing done in the southern sunshine.

I have also been putting in some time planning for the 2019-2020 academic year. I have my heart set on being a teaching fellow but we’ll see what happens. I have a draft syllabus for a class that’s beyond my wildest expectations and I can’t wait to share these texts and ideas with a group of students who are willing to learn and work. I’ll be sure to clue you all in as soon as I know if I’m teaching it.

My summer will be full but relaxing. I have some graduations to attend, I’m planning a trip to the University of Victoria for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) in June, followed by more rest and a potential for working on my dissertation prospectus so that I can propose it when I return in the fall, and then I’ll wrap things up by serving as the Academic Director of the W&M/Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration August 5th through 20th.

I’m tired, but excited. Only good things ahead.

Comps Unplugged: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

I pride myself a little too much on my plucky, “can-do” attitude. The more impossible the task, the more I seek to master it. I mean, you’re talking to the girl whose senior quote was: “It’s fun to do the impossible.” (Walt Disney) I’ve never exactly fancied myself Wonder Woman, but my expectations of myself are incredibly high.

So when comps prep season finally rolled around, I was overwhelmed by the impossibility of the reading but determined to kick its butt anyway. I planned, I organized, I scheduled. I made spreadsheets, lists, and even planned how many times a month I’d go to the library for books. And I counted– oh my, I counted. I count down the number of days I have until exams (currently 36), I count the number of texts I have left to read (for each list and then total), I count how many books I have to read a day in order to finish everything.

All of the neuroticism was eventually going to reach a boiling point.

I sat down in the living room with my mother, who (God bless her) has patiently listened to my daily comps stats reports, my summaries of novels that she’s never going to read and my many attempts at talking myself through this thing. I told her that I was probably not going to finish the last 18 or so books, despite my meticulous scheduling. I decided that giving myself at least a week to review (and rest and recover) at the end was more important than reading up until the day of the exam. I said it as if someone had died. My mom stared at me.

“So you read over 200, almost 300, books and you’re telling me you’re going to let those last eighteen to cause you to have a breakdown? Don’t break down at the end and let all your hard work go away.”

She was right. She’s never been so right. I am the Queen of Anxiety-Induced Melt Downs, and the fact is I’ve worked entirely too hard to let that be the case this time around.

As the days wound down, I began to suspect that these last days leading up to my exams would be the hardest, so now I think it’s time to adjust my plan of attack:

  • I am going to read about a book a day for the next month.
  • I am going to devote more time to doing things that will help me feel more prepared, like meeting with my committee, trying to develop questions, making outline answers to those questions.
  • I am going to stop working myself so hard. The anxiety attacks and the shoulder pain isn’t worth it.
  • I am going to prioritize my health in this last month. I can’t take the exam if I burn out at the last minute.

The truth is this is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re a person that doesn’t have a great work life balance. I don’t know when to stop. It doesn’t help when you’re a perfectionist– I don’t know when to let go. However, it is time for me to ease up. I can’t continue at this pace. The chronic tension (and pain) in my shoulders and back is telling my otherwise. I love myself too much to let a test break any part of me.

How to Make Comps Reading Schedules

One question I’ve gotten since I published my last post was how I structure and organize all of my Comps readings. With my total number of “To Read” items coming in at 282, I knew I was going to have to get organized. So, this week, I’m going to share with you how I’ve been creating weekly reading lists for myself.

BIG PICTURE

  1. Find your preferred site for your organizing. For me, it’s an Excel spreadsheet that I haven’t closed since September 2018. I have a workbook page for each of my four lists, anda final page for my reading schedule.
  2. Divide each of your lists into smaller subsections. My lists are sometimes divided chronologically, and sometimes by theme. For example, my African American Literature list, from Slavery to the Civil Rights Movement is divided like this: Slave Narratives, Reconstruction and Nadir, Harlem Renaissance, Interwar Period, and Criticism. Each block of texts is color coded. I do this because tackling smaller subsections are easier than tackling a list of 50+ texts; and it makes preparing for meetings with your faculty easier. When I finish all of my Slave Narrative texts, I can schedule a meeting just to talk about that subsection. It helps if you don’t jump all over the place, but rather work with texts that can speak to each other at one time.
  3. PROTIP: I mark texts that I have read in a grad level setting, and have good notes on as “Read, to Return to,” so that I can review those more closely during my designated review period before exams.

WEEKLY PLANNING

Here’s the thing: every week is going to be different. Some weeks you can body several 600-page tomes, and some weeks you’ll barely be able to get through an article. The key here is to pay attention to your body and mind so that you don’t overwork yourself.

  1. Decide how you want to present your weekly lists. As I’ve said, my excel sheet is my life line.
  2. Know roughly how many texts you need to read per week to get through everything. For me, it was 10-12 texts per week.
  3. Assign yourself readings based on what you’ve got going on each week/how you’re feeling. Weeks where I don’t have any meetings, I usually assign myself 12 texts and they are typically on the longer side. Weeks where I have out of town conferences, meetings, etc. I assign myself closer to ten readings, and some of them might be on the shorter side, like poems, articles, and book chapters.
  4. Plan your readings for three or four weeks at a time, then give yourself a week to catch up on anything you missed. I know that reading 12 books a week is ambitious, particularly when I err on the side of reading every page. (PROTIP: have a better reading practice than I do.) So I if I don’t meet my goal in a given week, it’s fine– I’ll have an opportunity to catch up.
  5. Plan how you’re going to tackle your readings. Are you going list by list? Are you reading all monographs? Or a mix of articles and chapters? I’ve found that having variety in my weekly schedule keeps me focused and interested. I don’t know that I could have read all of one list and moved onto the next, but if that’s what will work for you try that. As I am typically trying to read 12 texts per week, I assign myself three texts from each of my four lists to read during the week. To keep myself from burning out, I try to mix and match monographs with poems, articles and book chapters. Some days, I simply can’t get through a monograph, but I can read and annotate three poems. And I work through my lists methodically, aiming to finish a subsection before moving onto the next and meeting with my professors.
  6. Then Read! (Blog post on how to read forthcoming)
  7. Take good notes! (Blog post on taking good notes forthcoming)

TIPS

  1. Mark off your readings as you finish them. It’s super satisfying and encourages you to work towards the next mark off on a finished text.
  2. Take advantage of the fact that you’re not confined to a classroom. Read in new places. Don’t stay cooped up in your apartment (unless that’s what you want to do.)
  3. When you can, talk to people about what you’re reading. My parents are the bomb.com when it comes to this. I’m an hour from home so I’ve spent a lot of comps in my childhood bedroom reading. When I’m done with a book, I revert to my childhood practice of telling my mother what I’ve just read, if I liked it, main arguments, things that made me uneasy. My mom’s a great listener and if I catch her while she’s doing the dishes, I’m free to chat about the text in great detail. My dad’s the questioner. He’ll ask me questions I never thought about and make me rethink my entire relationship with the text. I’ll read him quotes, and he’ll take the book, read it for himself, and come to his own conclusion. My family and I are definitely in this PhD game together.

There you have it, a short reflection on how I’ve been planning, organizing and tackling my readings! If you’re also reading for comps, best of luck to you! We got this!