Tag Archives: reading

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!

Comps Reading: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider has been on my reading list for years. Ever since I read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” for the first time years ago, Audre Lorde has been high on my list of favorite theorists– though it is mentioned in the book that she did not view herself as a theorist, but rather a poet. (Introduction, p. 8) I even have a pair of Audre Lorde tattoos on my wrist which read, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” (“New Year’s Day”)

Poetry reveals itself through out this text as Audre Lorde uses prose to do what she claimed poetry did for her: help put words to an unnamed feeling, unmask that which has been hidden away, and build community between those who have difficulty hearing each other. She sprinkles actual lines of poetry amid her prose, because as she tells Adrienne Rich in an interview, “somewhere in that poem would be the feeling, the vital piece of information….The poem was my response.” (p. 82) The lines slip in when she gets close to a feeling that it seems she might not otherwise be able to identify. It’s moving.

Reading Sister Outsider had me feeling like Lorde, in that her sentences provided vital pieces of information, providing a response for feelings that were previously unnamed. I think this is interesting, this need to name feeling that she has. This is one part of the difference between pain and suffering that she notes in “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”: pain becomes suffering when the feeling is “incomplete” and unnamed. (p. 172) I find her discussion of the difference between pain and suffering intriguing, but I do not know if I am convinced. She writes that pain is an event and it must be named, but suffering is something that one can “condemn” oneself to, a relieving of unnamed pain over and over again. I suppose the part which I take issue is the condemnation because it implies that suffering is a choice. What I think Lorde may mean there however, is where pain can be named and acknowledged, it should be, because it is one way to avoid suffering.

In a similar vein, Lorde describes the difference between hatred and anger in “Eye to Eye,” stating that anger is a “passion of displeasure” and hatred is an “emotional habit or attitude…which is coupled with ill will.” (p. 152) Lorde writes that anger does not destroy; hatred does. She writes that anger can be a powerful fuel and in “The Uses of Anger,” a piece which compliments “Eye to Eye” nicely, in my humble opinion, she writes that “anger is loaded with information and energy.” (p. 127) Again, I believe her discussion of both anger and hatred are novel and convincing, but not perfect. I am not sure that I believe that anger cannot destroy, but I suppose when it has morphed into hatred, the point is mute. But that raises a question: she argues that hatred becomes the source of anger, but is it not the other way around? Wouldn’t anger about a situation lead to hatred?

But her main point of these particular essays, or at least what I am taking away from them, is that Black women have internalized self-hatred and thus are angry at each other in a self-destructive way. While Lorde struggles to unpack the inexplicable animosity between Black women, I struggle to unpack that she believes that animosity is there at all. She struggles with this animosity because she cites women as the main source of her restorative energy and thus finds it concerning; as someone whose main support system is a pack of Black women, I really want to know what kind of relationships has she had which have exposed such powerful hatred that she felt compelled to write two separate essays about it. It makes me want to write about Black female friendship and relationships because there is no power greater than the feeling of being supported by Black women.

On an unrelated note, I found it interesting that Lorde bookended her text with essays about other countries. The first are notes from her trip to Russia, in which she basked in the glory of the country like an other tourist, while also being sensitive to racial difference in order to provide a comparison between Russia and the United States. It seems every Black intellectual that I admire has some notes on “Another Country” (for a little Baldwin joke), in which being abroad makes even more stark the state of American racism. The last is “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report,” which was mostly interesting to see Grenada through the eyes of an outsider-insider: Lorde herself is Grenadian but she views the country with the sensibilities of an American, having lived there all of her life. (Brief and related side note: no where in her text is “American/America” capitalized. Because it is consistent, I am sure there is a reason for such a choice, but I do not know what it is. If someone knows, please leave me a note in the comments.)

Lorde has so many different identities, which she weaves seamlessly into the text to create a complex interwoven web, and I’ve chosen to simply follow a few of the strands. Among those that I have missed in my brief discussion of her work are her identities as a feminist, as a lesbian, as a Cancer survivor, as a Grenadian-American, and particularly as a poet. What she says about these things which make her different is that we must not merely tolerate difference. It must go deeper than that. We must not merely say “Black is beautiful.” It must go deeper. The question which springs immediately to my mind is: How? Lorde is invested in the means of offering solutions: a solution is what she is offering when she says “the Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” A solution is what she is offering when she says that we need to practice being as kind to ourselves as we are to our neighbors, for only that will off-set the hatred which we have internalized. We must raise our children to feel for themselves and not do the feeling for them. I think her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response” which discusses raising a boy as a lesbian feminist, tackles that issue justly.

The last thing I want to think about is the relationships between Black women, white women, and Women of Color, which can sometimes include Black women, but the way that Lorde uses it, (when quoting white women) is a way of including the issues of Black women, but softened by the perspectives of other non-white women. I do not believe this is a view that Lorde holds herself, but rather the way that white women use the term “Women of Color.” (See her discussion of This Bridge Called My Back in “Eye to Eye.”) Some of these tensions become most prevalent in Lorde’s interview with Adrienne Rich, who sometimes seems impatient with Lorde’s view of intuiting and feeling as a way of understanding and knowledge making. When she says the white man says, “I think therefore I am” and the Black woman says, “I feel, therefore I can be free,” Rich points out that people have found this sentiment anti-feminist, drawing on preconceived notions of femininity. I don’t agree: I think there is something very feminist in reclaiming emotion for women, which is so much of what Lorde’s work is. She is reclaiming anger, helping to reshape hatred, teaching us that guilt is ineffective. But I guess my question is, if rationality is to the white man as emotion is to the black woman (which is a problematic dichotomy in of itself) where does that leave Black men and white women? It seems as though white women get clumped into the rationality of white men. But what of Black men? Just something else to think about while I’m driving through town tomorrow.

There are so many things to think about when discussing Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and I do not believe I can do it justice in a short blog post, but I did want to take the time to write down a few of my many thoughts because for one, I had a lot of them while I was reading, and two, it is probably a good practice to review my books as such as I read them. I probably won’t have time to do such an in depth review of every one of my books, but I probably will do this for the important ones, my favorite ones, and the ones which have given me the most to think about.

So to leave you today, I want to offer you some of my favorite quotes from Sister Outsider, on the off chance you don’t plan on reading it yourself. (Which you most definitely should.)

Favorite Quotes and Ideas:

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” (p. 37)

“The Black mother within each of us– the poet– whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” (p. 38)

“I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (p. 41)

“Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface.” (p. 60)

“One oppression does not justify another.” (p. 63)

“Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (p. 78)

“Documentation does not help one perceive.” (p. 104)

“The mythical norm.” (p. 116)

“Change means growth, and growth can be painful.” (p. 123)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” (p. 138)

Week 8, Ravynn’s Spring Break Reads

I needed Spring Break more than I even realized. What I thought would be an uneventful week turned into a deep dive into texts I’ve been dying to read for the last few months. Before I knew it, I had devoured four books, plus a graphic novel, the 6 episode Black Panther television show, and all of my usual CW shows.

I realized I needed to give my mind a break and consume things I wanted to read for me when I was developing my blog post for Week 7 (which you’ll notice does not exist). It was supposed to be a “mixtape” of all the best things I’d read for classes since the last time I did a mixtape, which was during Fall Break. I quickly realized that I was having trouble gathering up a list of the things I’d loved, but the list of things I wanted to read but hadn’t was nice and long. I scoured my apartment for unread books and made a quick trip to Barnes and Noble to amass a nice stack of things to read on my week off.

So, here’s a mixtape of what I read (and loved) this Spring Break:

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

How I found it: I follow Morgan Jerkins on Twitter because she’s an editor at a literary journal I’ve yet to work up the nerve to submit to. But I’ve been following her work and was excited to find out that she had a book coming out. I bought it impulsively at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago but hadn’t had an opportunity to read until now as I’m on Spring Break.

2 second summary: Essays on being a Black girl/woman in white America.

What I loved about it: Jerkins’s essays really resonated with me, from topics as sacred as Black hair, Michelle Obama and why finding a man is so difficult. She’s raw and honest, brutal and yet touching. I cried twice from the sheer pain of seeing on the page what I’ve felt a million times but never dared to say. She’s a literary role model for me– I can only hope that one day I can decide to be equally as fearless and write my truth, too.

Rating: 12/10 would absolutely recommend


Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing

How I found it: I actually rediscovered this after I bought it during a Haymarket Books sale last semester. I bought it because I also follow Eve L. Ewing on Twitter. In addition to being a dope poet, she’s also a scholar and I try to follow as many Black women doing the things I aspire to do as possible.

2 second summary: Poems (and accompanying visuals) set in 1990s Chicago that explore Black womanhood with an afrofuturist twist.

What I loved about it: In lieu of an exhaustive list of all the poems that I loved from this work, let me simply quote my favorite lines for you:

Love is like a comic book. It’s fragile

And the best we can do is protect it

In whatever clumsy ways we can…

“Origin Story”

Rating: 10/10 would absolutely recommend


Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

How I found it: I was perusing a call for book reviews when I noticed that this novel was tacked to the end of the list of books up for potential review. Always eager to pursue my literary side, I made a note to read it but never got around to it. Until now…

2 second summary: A young boy, Jojo, coming of age in Mississippi deals with manhood, his relationship with both the Black and white sides of his family, and a relationship with the spirit of a story unfinished.

What I loved about it: I have a grotesque fascination with death and I wonder about the departed, in particular my Grandma, whose presence I often feel. Death and spirits are complicated but fixtures of our lives which demand attention. I loved getting to spend some time thinking about the living’s relationship to the dead and why the unburied sometimes sing.

Rating: 9/10 would recommend


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

How I found it: My friend, Micah, put me on to it. Only the best of the best can impress her and so when she raved about just the first fifty pages, I knew I had to pick it up and see for myself.

2 second summary: An 8 generation story which follows the lives of two Ghanian women and their descendants, which lead to a beautiful story about the impact of both slavery and the diaspora.

What I loved about it: Yaa Gyasi is an extremely talented writer. She’s got some beautifully clean sentences in her novel, sentences that make me want to pick up a pen and try to see if I can replicate words with even half the impact. The story that stood out to me the most (SPOILERS) was Willie’s story about her husband who passed for white and then simply slipped out of the Black world. (Not without traumatizing her first, of course, though.) I’ve read a lot of passing stories that take place during the Nadir and then into the Harlem Renaissance, but this particular story hit me where it hurt.

Rating: 11/10 would absolutely recommend.


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

How I found it: I don’t remember the exact first time I heard about this book but I do remember all the hype surrounding it. It was so impactful that I suggested it for review for a potential publication I was working on at the time I found it.

2 second summary: Cora is a enslaved person who decides to escape via the Underground Railroad, which Whitehead has reimagined as a literal railway.

What I loved about it: As I was reading this, I thought back on many of the enslaved histories I’ve read over the last two years in grad school and picked up on many of the details from those histories in Whitehead’s story. Never before had those histories come to life for me more than when I read Whitehead’s novel. Maybe it’s a personal failing, but I simply don’t process informational nearly as well if it isn’t presented in a literary way– if it isn’t a good narrative. It was an extremely informative read, with a strong Black female protagonist (indomitable, is the word used in the novel to describe her.)

Rating: 10/10 would absolutely recommend


There you have it: everything I’ve read– and loved– over Spring Break 2018.

I still have some books on my list that I want to read (including Citizen, An American Marriage, and Invisible Man Got The Whole World Watching) but I’m so grateful for the break and the chance to read some of the novels that have been on my mind for the last few months. I hope this post inspires you to take a look at least one (or 5) new read(s)!