Tag Archives: comprehensive exams

Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation

I am currently wading neck deep in the quagmire that is comprehensive exam preparation. Countless fellow students warned me ahead of time that this would be the most challenging aspect of my pursuit for a doctoral degree. While that remains to be seen, I can admit that the last few months have been exhausting to say the least. Below, I will narrate some of the realities I have thus far experienced, both good and bad, with as much honesty as possible. Whether you can relate, commiserate, or completely disagree with me, I hope that my transparency will help prepare others for their own exams.

You will have an “oh, sh*t” moment.

There will come a point where you think you have a handle on your list, that you are on top of your reading and this whole thing will be a piece of cake. It’s not. Continue reading Confessions of a Crazed Ph.D. Student, or, A Very Honest Account of Exams Preparation

One Thought Fills Immensity

This experimental post responds to the question I’ve been posing for myself for some time: what should I post when preparing for my exams, and have little time for words in the form of a blog? My answer came by way of an assignment I set for myself as part of my contemporary art and ecology exam reading  list. Watching the “Ecology” episode of Art21, I was struck by the sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard’s recalling of a time in her life when words were at a premium. In response, she spoke of continuing to “drink of the world by visual means.” And so, in this post, I wish to simply leave you all with a series of objects that have moved me to thought in various ways while studying for my nineteenth-century and contemporary art exams. I welcome comments on what responses to the images readers of the blog might have. Continue reading One Thought Fills Immensity

Advice: Five Scholars on Comprehensive Exams

Constructing comprehensive exam lists is no easy feat. A friend of mine compares the process to building a personalized obstacle course and then having to master it; after all, the texts that appear on your exams are texts that you have personally chosen. Another friend compares constructing exam lists to building a wish list; here are all the books and articles that I wish I had time to read (or re-read) earlier in my career. Whether you view exam lists as friends or foes, one thing remains certain: you must be aware of yourself as a scholar.

Several weeks ago, I read Renee Harris’ thoughtful how-to on running the comprehensive exams gauntlet. Harris’ article offered the very comforting reminder that even while we construct (and take) these personalized exams, we are never alone in the process. Beyond our supportive departments, committees, and mentors, there are always other people going through similar neuroses, struggles, and victories. And, consequently, there is a vast group of established scholars who have already gone through them.

In an effort to extend this conversation of how to approach such a daunting task, I’ve asked five established scholars across North America about their experiences taking and preparing for exams. What did they wish that they had known? What were they glad that they already knew? Below are their words of wisdom:

Dr. Brandy Schillace, Case Western Reserve University

I was standing in the stairwell, waiting to be called up to the defense. It’s hard to capture the tumult of emotion and anxiety… I felt I had dueling octopi in my stomach. I was terrified I’d say the wrong thing, or nothing at all in a fit of brain freeze. Then I remembered something. I’m Anglican, and coming from my studies of theology, I suddenly remembered the early charge that disciples ‘not worry’ about what they would say in advance. When the time came to speak, speak they would.

In that moment before defense, we are  ‘disciples’ of English studies and about to stand trial. But remember–we are also masters. We know our subject better than anyone, and possibly even as well as some on our committee. They are not judges; they are peers. We are not going to prove we belong; we are going to show we’ve belonged all the time.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I climbed the stairs… And I entered the room as a colleague. That’s what you are–colleagues in the making. Don’t be paralyzed by the exam. Don’t be cocky, either, but just remember: this is our job, it’s what we do. When the time comes to defend, defend you shall.

(Though I confess, praying never hurts)

Dr. Anne Stiles, Saint Louis University

1. Study several contiguous time periods. When I took my exams, I decided to focus on the Victorian period and the 18th century, but skipped the Romantic era. I definitely regretted it afterwards, especially since many jobs in my field are geared toward the “long nineteenth century.” If you’re studying two different time periods separated by a decade or more, remember that the meat in the middle of the sandwich is important, too!

2. Always carry around a book with you in case you have a few spare minutes for reading (while waiting in lines, for ex.).

3. Remember to read secondary criticism on the primary works you read, even if you’re not required to do so. This secondary criticism can help you tie together and better understand the works on your list, so you have more to say about them.

Dr. Richard Menke, University of Georgia

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently by students approaching their comps is whether they should “focus on breadth or on depth” in their preparation and in their exam answers themselves. My answer may sound glib and unhelpful, but it’s really intended to be neither of these: “Both.” What I mean is that they should be ready to frame their deep, specific answers in terms of a broad sense of genre, history, context, ideology (and so forth). But they should also make sure that when they find themselves articulating their broad understanding of the field, they offer a sense of how they could add details to flesh out and add nuance to their responses.

This dual focus can help students offer successful exam responses that set up useful follow-up questions, since examiners will often pick up on these suggestions in an oral exam, for instance. But I’m convinced that it can also do something more. Rarely in our careers do any of us have the chance (or the obligation) to read extensively and promiscuously across our fields, as we are asked to do for our exams. So preparation for the comprehensive exams represents a chance to charge your intellectual batteries in a special way, to gather some of the knowledge, the theories, and the hunches that can help propel years of thought. As students are studying for their exams, they should work from specific texts and problems, to patterns that link them into networks of relationship, to larger themes and ideas. They should see their own knowledge and understanding in relation to the shape of their field, and should be ready to articulate the significance of their ideas by discussing their connections to these wider intellectual contexts. After all, that’s just what they’ll need to do in their own scholarship, as they present their deep research and argue for the breadth of its intellectual significance.

Dr. Anne Mellor, UCLA

The only suggestion I have is to know everything that is in my anthology, Mellor and Matlak, BRITISH LITERATURE 1780-1830. That will familiarize you both with the canonical and the newly-added-to-the-canon texts, as well as their historical contexts.

Dr. David Sigler, University of Idaho

The exam year is the best experience you’ll ever have in this profession, and probably in your life. If the listmaking and reading and examining feel traumatic to you or even merely stressful, be comforted to know that this is the least traumatic phase of your whole long career to follow, and that the memory of its pleasures will compensate you during the decades of anxiety to come. Just by doing all that reading all day every day for about ten months, and reading super-carefully so as to file away all of the details, you really do become an expert in the field and begin making connections, text to text, that spark a million ideas. Everything begins to relate to everything else, like you’re Coleridge or something. I read for months with a kitten, Eloise, often aloud—and when I see Eloise today, ten years later, we both know that we read a whole lot of stuff, very intensively, together. It’s solidarity and belonging one is building, then. Reading for the exams was, no doubt, the best intellectual experience I’ve ever had.

Making the lists is like making a mixtape, and thus when they’re poorly constructed one’s deficiencies are exposed. Mixtapes were a technology of the late twentieth century. I worry sometimes that scholars of the most recent generation are at a considerable disadvantage in the list-making, having never made anything but playlists. You want to show that you appreciate some delightful neglected corners of your field and also aren’t afraid of the greatest hits. Everything should be selected to demonstrate one’s immaculate and capacious taste. I had all kinds of Joanna Southcott on there, and Mary Prince, and The Writings of the Luddites, and the Marquis de Sade, and some early Felicia Hemans from before she sold out (The Domestic Affections). I went with The Last Man instead of Frankenstein like it was no big deal. I know that none of those are obscure at all, but it felt that way to me at the time because my frame of reference was expanding so quickly. One covers a lot of ground and gets smarter. The experience was exhilarating for me, and it always is. My point is that mine was a really great Romanticism list, and I’m not sure anyone else really appreciated it properly. My advice, if you’re doing it now, would be to use an earlier, shorter version of The Prelude, as early and short as possible, because that’s a lot of time-spots to remember for ten months. Don’t put Night Thoughts or Political Justice on there, either—seriously just read them after your exams, or during your exam year on your own time if you must. You don’t want to be pressed on those hundreds of details. Finally, don’t argue with the DGS when s/he insists that you include Manfred on your list—it’s simply so delightful that you should definitely include it, even if you’ve already got Don Juan and Beppo on there—it’s not a burden to include it, I promise, and the arguing just makes you seem timid and unimaginative. I know you know that already.


Use Value and Literary Work: Poetic Identity in 19th Century Britain

I am a few days from submitting a full draft of my Ph.D. comprehensive exam rationales. These short written explanations/defenses of my lists are intended to help my committee see how I chose my texts, how I conceptualize the time periods, and what kinds of questions to pose in my oral exam next month.  No pressure, right?  I am not required as of yet to make groundbreaking strides in our field.  (I have four months until the dissertation proposal is due.)  For now, I am to demonstrate a confident knowledge of the area and its current critical debates.

And I must say, despite all odds: I am really enjoying this process.  I mean REALLY enjoying it.

Months upon months ago, I began designing my lists according to major themes in Romanticism and Victorianism.  I borrowed this approach from an old Victorian lit syllabus that divided our readings into the major debates of the period.  Luckily, the Victorian epoch already has names for many of these debates– we get “the woman question” and “the condition of England.” I started there and tried to work backward to see similar debates in Romanticism.  Not impossible, but I eventually abandoned these categories, finding many texts too difficult to compartmentalize.  Within and across the lists, I found too much resistance to these neat categories.

The porous boundaries between literary movements or cultural epochs are a consistent point of debate in literary studies. (This acknowledgment heads the disclaimer we sign upon entering grad school, right? “We all know this fact, but you, grad student, are responsible for challenging these textual boundaries in intelligent and original ways for the next six years”). The long-nineteenth century in British literature itself must expand at both ends to encompass a least a decade in each direction to make adequate sense in the ways we critics currently construct the period. And this is not a phenomenon reserved for the afterlife of each movement alone, but rather the writers and theorists of the Romantic and Victorian movements look backward and forward in attempts to situate themselves and their literature within a cultural narrative that shapes and is shaped by their work. Indeed, what I find definitive of the nineteenth century, a point of connection that unites the various authors and genres represented in my comprehensive exam lists, is a desire for clear situation within and beyond an epoch.

The writers we study desire a lasting cultural influence. They seek to shape and correct, to play a significant role in cultural formation and the national story. I argue that this desire to influence and make a mark is a symptom of economic insecurity. With an emphasis on practicality and pragmatism (the use-value of work) as the bourgeois class rises to influence across the Romantic and Victorian epochs, the “word’s worth,” if you will, of a man or woman of letters seems to require its own proof. This need to defend and define one’s usefulness in society and to posterity (on top of the need to prove one’s self within a chosen vocation, as with Keats, Hunt, DeQuincey and numerous women writers like Mary Robinson) creates a significant identity crisis that gets translated across the century into various points of cultural and historical contention.

"Work" by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865
“Work” by Ford Maddox Brown, 1865

John Guillory writes a compelling history of “use value,” how it was invented and how it comes to odds against aesthetic value in the early nineteenth century. I came to Guillory through Mary Poovey’s brilliant 2008 book Genres of the Credit Economy. Hers is a book you read and pine over, jealous you hadn’t written it first.  Of course the list of books I wish I had written has grown well beyond anything I could reasonably produce in a long academic career; nonetheless, I continue to drool and dream. Teasing out what Poovey calls a “double-discourse of value,” Guillory argues that aesthetic value depended on the emergence of “use value” as an economic concept in the late eighteenth century.  Looking to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, Guillory states that use value was invented to discursively clarify the relationship between production and consumption. It seems the people—literary writers and theorists?—were uncomfortable with the affective motivation behind ascribing a product value. Under the increased pressure for utility and practicality, valuing a work of art because of the pleasure it brings seemed a tenable (at best) justification for the time and effort expended in producing and consuming it. Therefore, the discourse substituted in use value which seems to marry production and consumption and get rid of the warm, fuzzy emotional value of art.

At the same time, Literature with a capital “L” cannot become so useful as to be absorbed into other types of writing like economic, scientific, or political writing (here’s the heart of Poovey’s book– how the distinctions arose between the genres).  So here’s the rub—aesthetics branches off from economic discourse for the first time, reiterating that not all written products are works of art. But what’s more, the products that appear like works of art may not be.  Thus Literary writers define what is “fine art” and distinguish between types of imaginative production based upon their adherence to the definition (namely, a work should not call attention to itself as a commodity, so rule out popular works and works of “immediate utility”).

But does this dismissal of “immediate utility” give leeway enough for my argument that poets and novelists in the nineteenth century feel the need to prove their utility?  I say, absolutely yes.  In my own adaptation of this cultural narrative, this is the crux of poetic identity in crisis. Suddenly (or not so suddenly, really, but now of sudden we have the language to explain this phenomenon) literature’s worth can no longer be taken as indisputable fact.  Suddenly, artists must defend the cultural relevance of the work.  What work does Literary work perform? Ironically, Wordsworth’s Prelude (esp. the 1805 version) justifies his seemingly self-indulgent aesthetic exercise in tracing the development of the poetic genius as performing the cultural work of a natural philosopher or historian, as he uses himself as the case study of a mind in development during upheaval of the French Revolution. Similarly, guarding his work against accusations of sensationalism or shock value, DeQuincey justifies his Confessions as being a comprehensive (scientific?) study of the effects of opium consumption, adding the potential educational benefits his mistakes may provide for the reader.

Perhaps more interestingly, Victorians like Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold seek to define a use value for the aesthetic products more obviously abstracted from immediate utility than Wordsworth’s or DeQuincey’s.  Here we have a sense of immediate cultural crisis—the moral fabric of society is degrading as the class boundaries seem to be dissolving, gender roles (especially in the literary marketplace) seem to be in flux, science is questioning what it means to be human (and to be particular kinds of humans, etc). Carlyle and Arnold foresee anarchy, and they don’t seem too extreme with these concerns.  Radical individualism, as Carlyle terms it “democracy,” erases the need for leaders to model correct behavior.  And what will we do without models?  How can we possibly be moral without seeing what morality is?  How can we be cultured if everything and everyone is valued equally?  Carlyle’s answer: heroes and hero worship.  And significantly, his heroes always have a poetic sensibility, that is when his heroes are not poets themselves. Likewise, Arnold famously writes that culture is the answer to anarchy. To read and see all the best that has been known and created–this will civilize and make moral the British populace in flux.

I can see these economic questions of “work” and “value” at the root of my original categories, the major crises of the nineteenth century in British culture.  I feel as though this framework lends itself to a discussion of so many topics in recent scholarship: mental science, gendered work (domestic novels vs. fin de siècle adventure novels; sensibility and sentimentalism; etc.), professionalization of bourgeois occupations, dissenting culture, the widening franchise, the bard’s role in nation-making and historical record, scientific advancement and religious doubt, etc.

All this to say, I am arguing a relationship between economic and social (class) change as the root of writers’ identities. I see the common thread between nineteenth century writers as their struggle to negotiate aesthetic vocations within a market and within a society that seeks a use value for all products (read utilitarianism, read Victorian work ethic, read rise of bourgeois values). Meanwhile every fiber of their beings wants to privilege fine art above products with an immediate utility. Fine art is for posterity, it is lasting and transcendent. Okay so “every fiber” is a gross overstatement, and my actual narrative challenges this art for art’s sake assumption. Ultimately, there is a real anxiety about whether literary work performs a cultural service, and these writers vie for recognition of their worth both personally and occupationally, both in the moment and in literary history.

Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To

I have spent the last nine months thinking about my Ph.D. comprehensive examinations, and, as of tomorrow, I am nine weeks away from THE day.  Yikes!  And since in my current stage of borderline freak out I can think of nothing else, I have decided to write a very practical how-to/how-not-to guide for comprehensive exam preparation.  Please learn from my colleagues’ and my experience and mistakes.  And PLEASE add your own suggestions in the comments below.  We grad students need each other’s support. I still have nine weeks, oh wise ones.  I welcome your advice and in return I give you mine.

A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse)
A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse), an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

To begin, let me describe the two comprehensive exam models I know from my Masters and Ph.D. universities.  Both universities position these exams as the transition between coursework and the dissertation.  At each university, students are tested over a group of lists specific to their areas of study, including primary texts of all genres and critical texts.  At my Masters university the exams were written.  Students prepared for the exams for an average of one and a half to two semesters.  The exam itself required students to write three 20+ page papers in response to the questions written by their committee (I believe the students have 4-5 questions from which they choose three).  You had 48 hours in which to complete the essays.  This style requires very organized and diligent note-taking, and communication with your committee members about types of questions to expect.  From here, you can begin drafting potential arguments to use during the exam days.

At my current university, the exams are oral. Three hours in a conference room at the mercy of five committee members. I’m reassured by my committee that the three hour exam is not so foreboding, but for dramatic effect and to garner your sympathy, I present it as an academic gauntlet. Four committee members are (roughly) in your area of study, and one committee member is recruited from a different department to ensure fair treatment and assessment of the tester. See? A gauntlet.

Students are to master three lists of texts (each of which is approximately three syllabi-worth of material) that cover our time period, an adjacent time period, and a list of our choosing (often a dissertation list, an author list, a genre list, or a theory list).  We are given three semesters in which to do this, but most students take only two.  My lists cover the long nineteenth-century with a decided focus on poetry and critical prose (though I do include novels as well).  I have a Romanticism list, a Victorian list, and a dissertation list, titled “Keats and the Cockney School.”  These lists are self-created with the help of your committee.  They must be approved, and you must provide rationales for them in the form of a 25 page document.

I did not get off to the best start in my studies. (Shhh! Don’t tell my committee!).  But after consulting with friends who had run the gauntlet and lived to tell about it, I developed a reading schedule, a realistic outlook on the process, and even an appreciation for this phase in my academic career.

So here’s a taste of what I have learned over the last few months:

Continue reading Running the Comprehensive Exams Gauntlet: A Hopeful How-To

Memoirs and Confessions of a Second-Year Ph.D. Student

Here are the facts as I know them: 1. There are never enough hours in a day; 2. I have students who still think I don’t know that changing their font from Times to Courier adds at least a page to their essays; 3. The long 19th century is such a joy to study.

I didn’t always know these facts. When I was an undergraduate English major, using Courier in every paper I wrote about books that I only partially read, I was aimless. I took classes in order to get my degree, I earned A’s, and I didn’t minor in anything. You could say that I wasn’t the most pragmatic person on the planet. At the time, I wasn’t fully focused on school or my future; my older brother had left for Israel instead of attending law school as he had originally planned, and I struggled, trying to understand his decision. Later, as I pondered what I might do after my B.A., I was torn between graduate school and law school. A Romanticism seminar in the fall of my senior year tipped the scales.

One of the first books that we read was Frankenstein, the first assigned book of my undergraduate career that I read cover to cover. What sold me on Mary Shelley’s work wasn’t the fact that she wrote in response to a ghost story competition—instead, it was an anecdote shared by my professor. He told us how he had inscribed the creature’s words: “I will be with you on your wedding night” in a card at his friend’s wedding. How clever, I thought. I, too, wanted to be that witty, literary friend at weddings, but I realized that I should not and could not quote a book that I had not read. It was the first time that I fell in love with a canonical work.

We read a lot of other interesting works in class, and– in case you’re wondering–I did actually read them in their entirety. However, it was the last assigned work of the semester that changed my life. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t grab my attention right away. So, to make it more animated, I began reading it aloud to my cats with different voices. Soon, I was invested in the characters. And then I brought my interpretation of the novel to class: I said there was an erotic attachment between Darcy and Bingley. My classmates reacted with violent disagreement. They took it personally—that is, they were uncomfortable with any reading of a famously heteronormative text that involved queer desire. In all honesty, their disagreement delighted me. It motivated me. It led me to attend office hours and read literary theory for the first time. I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Freud, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. I wrote multiple drafts of my end-of-semester paper. And I realized that—just as my brother had done something unconventional that he loved—I loved writing about literature that I had actually read and thought about in unconventional ways; I needed to read for intellectual engagement, not just for pleasure or for finishing an assignment.

I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the subject I am most passionate about, the deconstruction of heterosexist interpretations of texts. You could say that Pride and Prejudice was my patient zero. As a MA student, I continued working with Austen; the next text that I plunged into was Persuasion, and then it was Emma. In my M.A. thesis, I argued that the heteronormative relationships depicted in Austen’s three novels are built and premised upon queer desire.

As a Ph.D. student who will enter into her final semester of coursework in January, I am actively compiling my exam lists and just as actively kicking myself for not actually reading for my first three years of college. The list of works that I’ve read, while growing, is woefully underdeveloped, and I see my exam lists as an opportunity to atone for my undergraduate sins.  Even though I’ve been exposed to theory and a variety of tropes and texts, I remain interested in looking at texts—especially famous heteronormative love stories—and analyzing the ways in which desire functions. My dissertation will be a transatlantic study of desire and will further the ideas that I’ve been so passionate about since that seminar on Romanticism in my senior year of college.

PS. In case you’re curious–I have read Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and therefore feel okay about using parts of Hogg’s title.


Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.

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:




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!



Comprehensive Exam Preparation

This is my exam semester. When I began my PhD in West Virginia University’s program “exams” existed in an intangible future; now, they are here. No matter the format, no matter the number of texts on your list, the comprehensive exams are one of the legendary hurdles of obtaining a literature PhD. Critical to your success, exams help prepare students to tame the beast that is the dissertation. At various conferences over the past 6 months I’ve discussed exam format with peers from Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon—all over the country in a range of programs and concentrations; each institution formats their exams differently. The exam narrative, however, is largely the same: a feeling of dread coupled with excitement about the prospect of reading the materials related to their project for those who have yet to take exams and for those who have completed exams: relief for having them behind them but a knowledge that the dissertation holds its own challenges and intellectual rewards. It is a rite of passage that seemingly few would ever choose to relive. As I’ve prepared for my exams the process has been incredibly educational—not just because I’ve immersed myself in critical discussions regarding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Romantic and Victorian England or varying theorizations of ‘error’ but also because I’ve (re)discovered a great deal about my work process and ability (and sometimes lack thereof) to deal with the anxieties and stresses of examination.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand or did know, but lost sight of in the process:

1. Keep track of how you spend your time.  One thing I found frustrating about the exams was the absence of tangible progress. Yes, I could cross a book off of the list. Yes, each book I read helped me to further understand what I wanted from my scholarship. Yes, I now have a clearer idea of what kind of book I’d like to publish in the future. All of these things are well and nice but they aren’t very helpful today. Reading and taking notes for your exams can feel like running in place sometimes. I like the tangible outcomes of my work, and I am sure I am not alone. A seminar paper, an article, a presentation, a talk, a curriculum: these are all concrete productions of the work many of us do. The comprehensive exams are disconnected from their outcome: passing the exams, writing the dissertation. To help you see how much work you are doing and how you are spending your time, keep a work log. A spreadsheet in Google Docs is ideal because you can access it anywhere through your Google account. It has been helpful for me to see how many hours I’ve devoted to exam preparation (and to other things like course preparation, grading, publication, conferences, etc.).

2. Letting yourself down is not the same as failing. When I wrote my reading schedule last February my plan was to finish reading by late May. I poorly estimated how much time it would take me to read the texts for my exams; I found the reading process to be different than what I’d experienced in the past. I wasn’t prepared for the additional hours I’d spend taking notes, trying to synthesize the texts and write cogent summaries that would serve to refresh my memory months after completing the book. I couldn’t have known about the reading rut I would hit in April. When I crafted the schedule in February I was enthusiastic about reading 12 books on the history of England from 1789-1850…and the semester had just started. My enthusiasm waned around book 7 and mid-terms distracted me with a seemingly never-ending stack of grading. I didn’t meet my schedule. I had to learn that this was okay. I had plenty of time to finish reading; I had plenty of time to study before my exams. I had not failed (even if I felt like I had). I’ve discovered through this process that while knowledge of the material is certainly important, the knowledge gained regarding my own habits as a worker, reader, writer, teacher, and scholar has equally useful and important value.

3. Help yourself avoid distraction. When I first started reading I found myself wandering down various research paths inspired by my materials. Rather than finishing a chapter I would investigate a footnote or, curious about a possible gap in research, look for scholarship on the topic. In other words, I would find seemingly productive (even tangentially related) ways to pass the time without actually working on the task at hand (finishing the book, preparing for the exams). About half way through Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines, the third book I read for my exams, I decided to keep a “Distraction Relocation” journal. It is a just a spiral bound notebook but in it are all of the questions and future projects that I’ve identified during my exam reading. Rather than finding all of the scholarship on errata sheets, a distraction I full-heartedly considered while reading Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self, I jotted down a note about how it might be interesting to investigate how errata sheets were used in Romantic print practices (and whether their use differed between literary periods). The thoughts I’ve labeled here as ‘distractions’ are important and I’m certain that at least two things that made it into my “Distraction Relocation” notebook will find a place in my dissertation project. My notebook helped me to keep track of these thoughts without allowing them to derail my progress.

4. Stay in touch with your community. During exam preparation it can be easy to excuse hermit-like behavior. Fight against the impulse to hole up in your office or house; instead, stay in touch with your community. Do not feel guilty for spending time at lunch with friends. Keep in contact with your director(s) and mentor(s). Talk to people about the process and find out what works/worked for others.

5. Find healthy ways to release the stress and pressure of exams. Exams can cut off your social life if you let them; they can also be a catalyst to putting you at the bottom of your to-do list. It can be easy to excuse poor health habits because you are so busy: skipping out on your exercise routine, foregoing fresh food choices for easier, quicker options. I learned to love running as I prepared for my exams. It gave me a place to clear my mind, to release any of my anger, frustration and anxiety, and reminded me that exams are not everything (which can be a difficult thing to remember in the middle of the process).

6. Schedule the exams. Concrete dates on your calendar and on the calendars of your committee are an effective way to keep yourself in check. The earlier you do this the better, for at least two reasons: 1) Once the dates are set you can’t go back, motivating you to stay on schedule, and 2) Your committee members have busy schedules; the earlier you schedule your exams the more availability they will have.

7. Your committee is on your side. You have selected a group of people to support you and your project, to provide feedback and offer critical suggestions to improve your scholarship. They are all rooting for you; they want to see you succeed.

I’m sure there are other things that should be added to this list. What do you wish you knew about the comprehensive exam experience before you took/take them? Do you have any bits of wisdom to share?