Reflecting after the practice exam

Since taking a practice exam last week I’ve (once again) rethought my approach to the process, which is starting to feel more urgent as mid July comes into view. I’m off pace with my reading schedule for multiple reasons, one of which being that I started to get too interested in this stuff. Granted, Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation or Burke’s Rhetoric/Grammar of Motives require more attention at certain points, but I cannot afford to spend three days on something like Selber’s Multiliteracies for the Digital Age, even though my interests justify it. At the end of the day, reading for exams is simple cartography. You don’t necessarily need to know every/body, just where they’re buried (as one prof put it to me last spring).

Exam notes
Exam notes

The practice exam process is really useful, then, for testing out various tactics for planning, reading, and writing toward a response within the span of seven days, but also to see how the accumulation of certain study methods have (or have not) paid off to that point. In terms of methods, I’m thankful for reading everything inspectionally from the start. At least I knew (I admit, very generally), where the bodies were buried. For example, the question I answered was on rhetoric and materiality and because I knew the feminist anthologies were particularly dense, I skimmed through those again to find a piece by Vicki Tolar Collins (Burton) on materialist methodologies. What I need to prioritize now, however, are the remaining 7-8 texts I didn’t read in coursework (there are also handful of texts I haven’t read in years). That’s going to be a challenge and because of time, I’ll have to go back to my method of reading with a stopwatch (e.g. 30 minutes per chapter). I may also have to move from taking printed notes, which helps with retention, back to digital notes, which is speedier, but more automated (e.g. cutting & pasting quotations). Finally, I’ve more or less given up on writing my own exam questions and blogging long posts in favor of focusing on shorter, less perfect summary/responses to individual texts. I think the longer posts are ideal and a better mind exercise, but an impossible goal given how long it took me to write the last one on historiography. Again, this is just a matter of ideal vs pragmatist approaches to overall process.

In terms of what I can now expect of myself during the actual exam, I have a much better sense of how the week should be divided: I spent a day and a half trying to choose which question to answer (the practice exam gave us two choices) by re-reading them, breaking them apart, mapping possibilities, and skimming texts by thumbing through sections I’ve read (or the front and back matter for texts I haven’t). I then read and re-read for four days, leaving me with two days to write. This just wasn’t enough time to write 4-6,000 words. I found that I can reasonably write about 2,000-2,500 words per day, but I hit a wall soon after that.

Arguably most important lesson from the week is that I will need to choose the question faster and give myself no fewer than three days to write. Deciding when to stop re/reading and start writing was difficult because it required the confidence and faith that I had enough of an argument — and thus a cohesive structure — in place to begin drafting. I had done a lot of in-between writing by printing double-entry journal notes — with summary notes in black ink and synthesizing notes in blue — but I didn’t return to these as much as I had hoped. When I do this again, I might try to write more notes directly in Word.

We’ll get faculty responses on the practice exam soon so I’m anxious to see how their feedback will affect all that I’ve said above. But until then, back to Selber…