Tag Archives: reading

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.

Fade to Black: Take 2, Food for Art

No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!

I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:

Citizen // Claudia Rankine

I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.

Swing Time // Zadie Smith

This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom.  When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism.  While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.

Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper

Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.

Long Division // Keise Laymon

During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.

Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston 

I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.

I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.

There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.

P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:

Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith

Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire

Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods

Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast

Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar

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!

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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

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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!