All posts by Kimberly.Kaczorowski

The best tips I can give about preparing for comps

This is going to be a short and relatively easy post, which are the two things studying for the comprehensive exam is not. It’s been a grueling couple of months, and I admit studying for the comprehensive exam is stressing me out. Really stressing me out. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. Grad school is stressful. There’s teaching, conferences, essays, professionalization, publishing, networking, and constant reading. There’s very little money. But, the reading year has been particularly stressful. It’s the impending pressure of having to sit in a room with five people who will quiz me about one hundred and twenty books. Five people will evaluate me at once. It’s also a discussion that will either allow me to advance in the program, or will result in a stalled few months.

The logical part of my brain knows the exam is a wonderful opportunity to discuss great texts and float ideas. Other people have written wonderful posts about how to prepare for the exam. They encourage having an organized note-taking system and talking about books to everyone. I’m going to focus on how to relax enough in order to accomplish any of that. Here are some tips that I wish someone had drilled into my head during my first few weeks:

 

Get off of Facebook. There are tons of studies coming out that suggest anyone on Facebook judges themselves based on what other people’s lives appear to be like. We, as English people, can understand that. People edit their lives on social media, and the story can seem more real than the editing. I’ve found Facebook stress becomes more amplified when you spend eight to ten hours a day in a chair and your arms hurt from holding large texts close to your face. Looking at pictures of someone else just being outside, where there is sun, trees, animals, and plants, is suddenly hurtful. You’re inside, you can’t go outside because you should be reading, but you’re not reading; you’re on Facebook, where it seems everyone else is outside or having fun or having fun outside.

Go outside. Go anywhere, really. One of my peers told me about a study that suggested changing physical location helps your brain see things in a new light and increases memory. Sit outside, when you can. Allow yourself to go to coffee shops or the library when the weather won’t let you be outside.

Exercise regularly. When I first started the PhD programs, one of my professors told me to exercise. I remember laughing and asking “When am I going to have time to do that?” He said I should do it anyway. He was right. Of course everyone knows exercise reduces stress. That knowledge didn’t make me do anything. But, scientific explanations about how much exercise reduces stress are motivating. According to studies published in Cell Stem Cell and Molecular Psychiatry, exercises help brain cells grow and that growth increases serotonin. Though these studies focus largely on depression, their conclusion, that Prozac and exercise have similar results on serotonin creation, is a strong endorsement to exercise. (http://healthland.time.com/2013/03/20/its-all-in-the-nerves-how-to-really-treat-depression/) Even short amounts of exercise have been shown to increase cognitive functions. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/20/regular-exercise-brain-functioning-mental-test-adult_n_2902243.html). So, exercising two or three times a week increases serotonin, stimulates brain cells, strengthens memory, and makes your brain function better. The results validate setting aside a bit of time to move around.

Sleep. I’ve saved the most important for last. Sleeping around eight hours allows you to function. It’s that simple. Even taking short naps will heighten your ability to concentrate. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center, 8.4 minutes will heighten cognitive function. Sleep is what allows your brain to transfer short-term to long-term memory, and just one night of poor sleep can result in lower cognitive function. Have a ritual before bed; do the same things at the same time and your brain will shut itself down.

 

I’ve found doing all of these things makes me work efficiently. Beyond all the wonderful texts I’ve encountered and concerns I’ve crafted, I’ve come to know taking care of myself is not different than preparing for the exam.

To everyone out there preparing for their exam, best of luck! Remember, at some point it’s over.

Reading List Adventures

This is the semester I am struggling to put together my reading list for the comprehensive exams. I have to admit it’s a rather exhausting process, much more exhausting than I initially planned for. I entered into the PhD thinking I had a firm grasp on what I wanted to do – pursue eco-criticism and animal studies in Romanticism. I’ve found out that’s a rather hard thing to do. Going into a relatively interdisciplinary field requires a lot of thinking about different kinds of texts, themes, and theories. Anyone who has read texts dealing with race or gender will tell you that animal metaphors work to separate different kinds of people. So, are these metaphors in some way worth talking about, given their obviousness in the texts? In what ways do they change as the Industrial Revolution takes hold and separates, in a somewhat larger way, mankind from nature? The most important question (for me at this point, anyway) is how can I begin to get a hold on this issue in time to create a cogent and defined 120-odd booklist?

As I began working on it, I knew that environmental metaphors animated critical gender discussions in the Romantic era. In Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that women are poisoned by their own culture, “for, like the flower which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.” Yet, “the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness” is partially based upon “man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation.” Those are obvious metaphors, but the way in which they position a woman in relation to the environment intrigues me. I thought about several canonical works from the period, and then I consulted several anthologies as well as these lengthy lists:

http://graduate.engl.virginia.edu/oralsonline/

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/english/grad_orals.htm

http://www.english.ucla.edu/index.php/Current-Students/graduate-reading-list

There’s a lot of texts on there, some that I was only peripherally familiar with and some that I had never encountered before. I looked for texts written by women or texts that dealt with the question of women that also involved the environment or animals. As you can imagine, that led to a rather long list filled with novels, poetry, plays, travel essays, literary essays, and theory tracts.

Then, I had a sort of revelation that I was not expecting and it came from an odd place. I began looking at pretty pictures of dresses.

Yes, you read that right. Pretty dresses. When it is winter and I feel bogged down by reading, and grading, and writing, I like to look at art, clothes, and houses from the period I study. It’s mentally invigorating, but that might just be an excuse I tell myself to look at beautiful dresses.

I noticed through my cursory searching a rather huge difference between women’s fashion pre- and post-Romantic Era fashion, especially in terms of how much of the body is shown and what is on the linen.  Dresses changed from being highly structured and covered in flowers to being more flowing with less natural decorations. I am in no way claiming to be an expert on women’s fashion. How correct or incorrect these observations are is less important than the effect it had on my list-making. I began to wonder how animals and the environment were utilized to produce certain kinds of bodies. That began to narrow down my list, and it also gave me a clearer picture of what else to put into the list.

My advice for this whole process is pretty simple:

1.)   Look around a lot. Consult examples of lists, anthologies, your Amazon wish-list. You’ll need to balance the canonical, but also find the exciting, bizarre, and strange you believe you might want to read.

2.)   Be available for inspiration in whatever form it happens to take. Go to a museum. Go outside. Talk to your pet. Eat a good meal. Give your mind a moment to relax and you’ll find the Ah-ha!