Warming up to Comprehensive Exams

After taking what feels like a month-long academic hiatus — replaced by community engagement, caregiving, Wire-watching, traveling, and dubbing — I’m feeling refreshed and finally ready to get serious about my comp exam prep this summer. That’s not to say I haven’t been preparing for the exam all along. A few years ago Syracuse moved away from a process that favored co-generated reading lists to a prescribed one where many of the works are sprinkled throughout coursework. So I’ve already read or skimmed roughly 50-60% of the list. Still, there are several seminal works I haven’t touched (including Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, and Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations). My first step, then, was to use Zotero to organize the core list into groupings somewhat based on the courses, but that also made sense to me — a dubious enterprise for sure. At this point I have ancient rhetoric, history, pedagogy, technology, and then methods and theories. I also have a folder dedicated to stuff I haven’t read. Although it might be smarter to choose books that straddle a number of areas (Brooke’s Lingua Fracta, Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives and Cintron’s Angel’s Town come to mind), conceptually and temporally it’s just easier – at least initially — to use a taxonomy to develop a strategy.

Seeing the 40+ works together in the list is a bit intimidating, and between taking care of two kids, researching a new course for Spring 2014, and maintaing general summer mojo, my study time feels incredibly limited. So rather than trusting myself to jump right in and tackle everything pell mell, I started by making some room to re-assess my study habits — namely by reading Mortimer Adler’s classic text How to Read a Book (recommended by one of my faculty members years ago), and revisiting Greg Colin Semenza’s excellent (and much more recent) book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century (1st ed)a text I blogged about two summers ago when I was about to be a real grad student again.

Based on Semenza’s advice in the “Exams” chapter, I’m glad I made some space to do so. As he puts it, “[t]he preparation for examinations — rather than the examinations themselves” (137) is what’s important. He suggests focusing on the process for studying since the questions that will be asked — likely to compare a broad disciplinary concept in 20 pages or so — will not match the scope of the works studied. He identifies this as a major trap of the exam process. Many people study incredibly hard and are then are eager to show off that work only to realize that the exam tests such a limited amount of knowledge. The other trap he mentions is shutting yourself in for months and months, jettisoning any sort of structure that had previously made your life livable. Thankfully my wife and kids preclude that from happening, but I’ve already scheduled a study session with at least one person in my cohort. I’m also running fairly regularly.

Arguably Semenza’s most controversial suggestion is to make the exam process work for you, using the process “as a starting point for dissertation research and advanced teaching” (138). Although he assumes readers are working within a exam structure that requires a co-constructed list (that is, not a master list like ours at SU), I wondered what it would mean to read selectively those books most relevant to my future. At the same time, he recommends reading widely, focusing on the basic aspects of each work, such as its “argument, methodology, contribution, and … context” (144).

I’ve really struggled with this part of the process, as it would be more fun to read deeply (in Adler’s terms, “analytically”) those works most important to me and my future work: Selber’s Multiliteracies, Shor’s Critical Teaching and Everyday Life, Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition, and Lauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. But the solution is likely somewhere in the middle — read deeply occasionally, and widely often. There are six exam questions representing each of the six core classes; these are split up between two weeks, with students answering one of three questions per week. With that structure, then, you can afford to ignore two area/core class lists (let’s say ancient rhetoric and theory) and still be relatively prepared to answer the questions (since one would be left over if both those topics were asked the same week).

I don’t know if I’ll ignore two areas, but since I’m not particularly strong in ancient rhetoric and I don’t foresee myself doing too much with that area in the future, I’ll study that list the least. It feels like I’m hacking the system, but I think Semenza would be perfectly okay with my approach. As he puts it: “By the time you finish your reading for examinations, you will understand perfectly well that no examination will be able to test you effectively on how much you know” (136). Again, he uses that frame to suggest focusing on the process and not the exam is the key to surviving your comprehensive exams.

Tomorrow I’ll blog a little bit about Adler’s advice for reading syntopically (that is, across texts) as I prepare to start my studying by focusing on an area that I generally neglected in coursework: composition histories. Have advice on this process? Please post your ideas in the comments.