Tag Archives: notes

5 Steps to Prep and Study for Comps

In a recent post, I detailed the next part of my PhD journey after finishing coursework: Comprehensive Exams, better known as Comps. The post described what Comps are, what their purpose is, and how to create lists for them. Now that I have my lists, a few people have asked me to describe how I am preparing and studying for the exams, so here’s a step-by-step guide to my process.

Step 1: Get organized.

I’m pretty sure this is the number one step for most of my how-to guides when it comes to graduate school. For some people, just having the lists is enough. I need more.

One of the first things I did was create an Excel spreadsheet that has the title and author of the text, along with some other pertinent information. What else you choose to include is up to you, but I included: whether or not I had read the material; read it but not recently; whether I had reread it; whether I owned it, needed to get it from the library, or could get it online; if I needed to Interlibrary Loan (ILL) it, or whether I wanted to buy it for my personal collection; and a separate section for notes.

Having the Excel sheet setup like this helps me see at a glance what I need to read, how I need to obtain the text and gives me an opportunity to write down any additional notes.

Step 2: Plan it!

I admittedly do not have an intricate plan for the order in which I’m reading things, at least not right now. Because I’m starting early, I’m mostly choosing things off of my lists that I wanted to read anyway for fun.

Once I’m in the thick of reading (i.e. when I’m doing nothing but comps), I will do another post about how I’ve planned out my readings. As of right now, my goal has been to read 1-3 books per week.

Step 3: Read!

IMG_3781

I try my very best not to overwhelm myself with reading, especially during the summer when I’m supposed to be relaxing. As always, I read in small chunks, either one chapter at a time for academic texts, or in intervals of 25 pages for novels and comics/graphic novels, making sure to take breaks in between each section. I spend the most time on the introduction and conclusion, making sure to highlight or underline the author’s thesis, the goals of the text, the evidence they will use and their methodology. I try to spend no more than 30 minutes per chapter, unless the chapter is particularly pertinent to my own research interests.

For novels and graphic novels, I try to simply enjoy reading them, because it was, after all, my love of them that got me into graduate school in the first place.

Step 4: Take notes

IMG_5317.jpg

In addition to the Excel sheet, I also keep a physical journal where I take notes on the texts that I am reading. My process for note taking varies by the type of text I am engaging with but here are the key subjects I hit during my note taking:

  • For novels and short stories, I read the entire text, highlight and underline key passages to my heart’s content. Once I’m done, I provide a brief summary, pull out themes and motifs from the text, note fast facts like the date published and etc, write down main characters and then my thoughts and questions. I like to use the “thoughts” section to synthesize and make connections between the current text and any others that I have read. For example, when reading The Bluest Eye, I used this section to make connections between Maureen, Pecola and tragic mulatto narratives that I read in my Interracialism class.
  • For comics and graphic novels, I like to note keywords, themes, and visual and/or verbal motifs. I have a “thoughts and questions” section for things that troubled me during my reading, as well as things to bring up during Comps meetings with my faculty members.
  • For academic texts/non-fiction, I cite the main argument, the goals of the text, evidence used, and methodology with a brief descriptive summary of the text. If I can discern it, I like to note the scholarly lineage of the text, which is to say which other scholars is the text in conversation with, and from where does it draw its secondary sources. I also have a section to discuss ways in which the text may be of service to my own scholarly work. (Where does my scholarship fit?)

Step 5: Decompress!

Be sure to give yourself time in between texts to take care of yourself. Reach out to your friends, go to the gym, eat a good meal. You will spend a lot of time with just you and your thoughts, but don’t let it consume you.


So there you have it: a step-by-step guide to preparing and studying for Comps. As the year progresses, I’ll have even more detailed guides to prepping for the big exams, but this is how I’ve been doing it thus far. I hope at least some of this was helpful to you. Happy reading!

Week 13, or Finals (Prep) Season

Normally during breaks, I write reflection pieces for BGDGS. This time around, I essentially worked straight through Thanksgiving Break, and while that’s not the healthiest thing I’ve ever done, it did give me some time to reflect on how I prep for final projects and seminar papers.

STEP ONE: Work up some ideas

My first step involves a lot of brain dumping. During November classes, I spend a lot of time turning ideas over in my head, trying to catch on to the ends of ideas brought up in class that peak my interest. As the semester progresses, you can find me jotting ideas for papers down in the margins of my journals or on post it notes.

STEP TWO: Follow an idea down the rabbit hole.

After I’ve collected enough of these half thoughts, I choose the idea that has the most substance to it. This process generally is dictated by how many questions I can ask related to the topic. Once a topic is selected, I do bigger brain dumps.

image
Mind map and outline
image
Up close mind map
image
Outline

Above, you can see examples of two of my brain dumps. In the left most picture, the pink paper on top is a mind map– something I honestly haven’t done since I was in middle school but considering I’m working on a Scalar project for my Media class instead of a linear paper, I decided I needed to work through my ideas in a more associative way. The paper on the right in that picture is a traditional outline for my Reflections of the African Diaspora class. Linear papers get linear planning.

 

Then, you can see a closer view of my mind map and finally on the bottom all I’ve done is consolidate my ideas into a outline, broken into workable chunks.

STEP THREE: Secure, Read, and Annotate Some Books

My heavily annotated World of Wakanda Volume 1

 

Now is also about the time when I start gathering books for my final projects. I spend a lot of time in the Library database, requesting ILLs, pulling books from the library and my own personal stock of monographs and comics. Once the haul is over, I grab a pile of sticky notes, highlighters and pencils, and go to town with annotating those bad boys.

I typically color code everything– in my World of Wakanda volume, green indicates spatial references, orange identity formation, and blue technology. In books that will be used for more than one paper, I assign each class a color.

 

 

 

 

STEP FOUR: Start writing!

A blank scalar page

This blank Scalar page is about as far as I’ve gotten on actually writing anything. I have a blank word document for my Reflections paper, and just a few meager ideas for my Feminism essay. But fortunately, this is a light semester in terms of finals. Both my Reflections and Feminism papers are 15 pages, and my Scalar project should be about 2,500 words, which is about 10-12 pages. Compared to my first semester when I was writing between 60-70 pages total, this is going to be so manageable.

The Scalar project is just going to take time. I need to work on it a little every day to get used to working in the form so I’m not panicking and trying to do everything at last minute. My current plan is to write out all of my sections in a document first, then copy and paste the sections into Scalar, then work from there. I also want to try annotating videos and images in the site itself, so that’s going to take time as well. I’m going to work hard on this one because my friend and I are considering submitting these to a comics conference happening in August, if all goes well.

STEP 5: Think ahead!

As I’ve gotten further along in grad school, I’ve learned to think of final papers, not really as final papers, but as drafts, as playgrounds for ideas you can come back to, expand on, or turn into something different, like a conference paper or a dissertation chapter. Thinking about papers as intellectual exercises rather than scary, huge monstrosities helps take the edge off of finals season and puts you back in control.

I don’t have much written yet, but I do have a lot of prep work done. The more prep you do, the easier finals season becomes. Hopefully next time, I’ll have more to reflect on, but in the meantime, good luck to everyone out there who, like me, is struggling through Finals Season.

Happy Writing!

Intermission, ft. Note taking: Tools and techniques

I was chatting with a friend yesterday (hi, Micah) when I had the idea to write a post about my favorite note taking tools since arriving in graduate school. The idea came about as Micah was asking for advice for starting her thesis, so I told her what every professor and grad student I’ve ever met told me: write everything down.

It seems basic, but truly, the Academy is a world where you spin out your most intricate ideas. An idea you had on the bourgeoisie 20 years ago might be just what you need to round out that pesky paper you’ve been fighting on protest music for the last 14 months. If you have a system of documenting your ideas, you can go back to them at any time.

So, first things first, it’s worth thinking about whether you’ll do your note taking analog or digital— handwritten or digitally.

STRATEGY: HANDWRITTEN NOTES

Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I go nowhere without a physical book, (several) pens, and at least one notebook or planner. The process of writing things down with pen and paper is one of the most calming experiences I know, so naturally I use this method for note taking in class and for my readings. My thought process is that if I’m going to hand write everything, I may as well make it pretty, so I splurge on my journals and pens for the semester.

61zn83rqltlScreen Shot 2017-07-23 at 9.33.39 AM

TOOL OF THE TRADE

Up until this summer, I’ve stood firm on my love for Moleskine journals. I started using them in my second year of college and never turned back. Because I had a pretty established and functional note taking routine from undergrad, I didn’t change very much. I love the polished look of a hard back Moleskine– I label them and stick them on my bookshelf at the end of the semester like they were any other book I purchased. I’ve never run out of pages, I seem to just make it to the end of the semester in them, which brings me to another strategy…

STRATEGY: USE ONE JOURNAL FOR YOUR ENTIRE SEMESTER OF CLASSES

Okay, I definitely see how this one could be controversial. When we think about school, we’re trained to think about buying a separate binder and notebook for every subject. It helps us focus and dedicate our energy to one thing at a time, but one thing I noticed as I took more rigorous classes at UVA was that I tended to take fewer notes. The more rigorous the class, the more they tend to be built around ideas and themes, rather than a list of facts that you learn by rote memorization, especially in the humanities. I used to take 4 or 5 pages of notes per class in undergrad, whereas now, I’m lucky if I fill an entire page in my journal during one class in grad school at times. Fewer notes and a less pressing need to write down everything means you’re less likely to fill an entire notebook for each class, so I consolidate.

TIP: SO WHAT ARE YOU TAKING NOTES ON THEN?

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 10.35.31 AM

I think everyone will make the mistake of reading more than you need to and taking more notes that you need to until you finally get into the rhythm of what types of notes and information you’re looking for that will be useful for you.

In class: When discussing a book or an article in class, particularly if it will be relevant to me or my work at some point, I always make sure to write anything down that will put me closer to figuring out what the main project or argument of the book/article is. I write down particularly compelling arguments that my classmates put forth, important clarifications that my professors make on the book’s arguments, and anything on the author’s biases that would have impacted how and why they wrote their project. Unfamiliar terms are always nice to jot down, as well as any questions you asked that you got a particularly good answer to. I also like to write down any random thoughts that come to me while I’m thinking about the books, because often the ideas that get batted around the table like a high speed Wimbledon match are the ones that become paper topics down the line.

While reading: Take good notes on the introduction, paying special attention to the main argument and any key terms the author may introduce, then make sure you get the gist of the chapters that follow. Make it your goal to see if the author convincingly, persuasively and adequately argues their main idea in their chapters, noting passages or points that add to their argument or detract from it.

TRICK: SO HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE ALL YOUR CLASSES IN ONE NOTEBOOK?

img_1124-2

There is, my friends, a glorious wonderful thing called bulletjournaling. Essentially it’s a DIY planner/to do list/diary hybrid. It’s made for people who are extraordinarily type A but also enjoy adding a little creativity to their day-to-day life, especially when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. (So, me…) For my grad school bullet journal, I lean most heavily on the planner/to-do list aspect of the journal. I begin my journal with a calendar of the months of the semester, and go ahead and plug in any important dates based on the syllabi I receive. From there, I just go week by week. I start by creating a spread like you see above: on the left, I write down all of the readings I’m supposed to do for each class. At the bottom of the page, I do a tentative reading schedule, where I break down the big books into chapters, and space out my readings so I’m not overwhelmed and trying to read 3 articles before class. On the right, I like to keep an overview of my week, plug in classes, appointments, meetings, so I can see what time I might have free during the week to finish any of the assignments that didn’t get done in the designated time.

Tip: I know this seems almost a little too structured, but there’s a lot of flexibility built into this system. When I give myself three academic tasks to finish during the course of the day, I never say when during the day I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter whether I do it at 6 AM or 11 PM at night, as long as I get it done at some point during the day, it’s productive time well spent.

Tip: I also never berate myself for not doing everything on my to do list. Some days I don’t feel like doing what I listed, so I pick to do items from other days. Sometimes I get really into a book and read the whole thing instead of breaking it up over a couple days, but then I don’t do the other items on my list. Somedays, I’m not up to doing much so I do all the easy tasks and some days I don’t feel like doing anything at all. Be firm in your decision to manage your time, but flexible in ways you manage it.

During the week, I just take notes for my classes as I go. The one big seminar a week per class structure lends itself well to organizing– you have notes from class in the same order pretty much every week. Then as I’m nearing the end of the semester, I might color code my notes for even easier access by either assigning each class and schedule page a different post it note color and marking them all like that, or I might use the same strategy with just a regular marker.

For all this organizing and color coding, it’s worth having a few types of pens/markers at your disposal…

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

41yraylfgel-_sy300_76831

Who doesn’t have a pen preference? For me, my preference often changes based on what type of paper I’m writing on. (Seriously, pens write differently on various types of paper.)

For the first few years of my Moleskine usage, nothing looked better in my journals that Staedtler black fineliners. I still very much enjoy using them today, but I find I enjoy writing with Pilot Precise v5 pens. The pilot pen is totally different– it has free flowing ink which doesn’t dry almost immediately like the Staedtlers and it’s a little more difficult to grip, but I find they don’t run out as fast as the Staedtlers. The first two weeks of use with the Staedtlers are perfect– until the felt tip starts to bend out of shape or fray or run out of ink. I would consistently go through two or three packs of those a semester, while I’ve used the same two or three pilot pens for the same length of time. The Pilots aren’t perfect but I also haven’t found a brand I like more than them at the moment.

41qtm5tivhl-_sx355_

If you want to add some bolder black lines for headings, I highly recommend Pentel sign pens. They make great lines that don’t smudge and they’re also good if you’re interested in learning calligraphy or basic lettering to jazz up your notebook. (see example below)

Screen Shot 2017-07-17 at 11.58.56 AM

Tip: Don’t get too invested in making it beautiful. What you really need is something that is functional and practical for you. My journals are excessively pretty because it’s relaxing for me. I enjoy spicing up my otherwise dreary notes with color. Plus it helps me focus when I’m in class– it absolutely feels like it would be distracting, but the concentrating on what I want to write and how I want to write it, helps me absorb and retain information, and I’m more likely to be focused on the conversation, because I’m thinking about what I’ll add next.

LONG STORY SHORT…

Note taking is a lot about finding what works for you. I just happen to really enjoy the process of taking notes and have found my note taking strategies to be effective for me, and have been for quite some time.

Also, just because I prefer handwritten notes, doesn’t mean I always use them. For example, for articles or short excerpts of essays, I like to download them to NotesPlus and highlight important parts, do marginalia and write summaries on the document itself. This helps me keep track of all the articles I’ve ever read, since they’re all in one place without having to print out a bunch of loose pages.

I know plenty of people who swear by digital notes only, using Evernote or OneNote to keep track of the semester’s notes. Some people like having all of their notes digitally but prefer to hand write things, so an option is to get a notetaking app like NotesPlus for your device of choice and invest in a good stylus, and take handwritten notes on your device. Some people print all their articles, put them in a binder and sticky note the crap out of them.

Most people told me you’ll play around with a few different note taking techniques before you figure out what your preferred method is, saying that you definitely won’t take notes like you did before.

That may or may not be true.

I found that I take notes more or less the same way I did when I was undergrad, with a few adjustments, and that seems to have been working very well for me. Still, never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. You’d be surprised to see what works!


I tried to keep the more confusing aspects of bullet journal designing out of this post, but if anyone’s interested in how I do that, leave comments below! Relatedly, if you’re interested in how to build a finals writing and reading schedule schedule, make sure you leave comments!