Passing the major exam: a final reflection on the process

As you could guess from the title, I passed my major exam. After a summer filled with anxious blogging about my studying process and some admittedly uneven discussions of the texts themselves, I have to say that the actual writing of the exams went fairly smoothly. By the time I wrote the final exam, I was truly ready, taking way too many notes on actual and potential source texts. In that sense, the best part of this process is that I now feel prepared to move on to the minor exam, which is essentially a pre-dissertation boot camp — except way more fun. Before I discuss that, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I just want to recapture some of the reasons why I think I got through this phase as smoothly as I did:

  • I minimized my professional obligations. This summer I was lucky to receive a grant to develop a course for Spring 2014, so I didn’t have to leave the house to teach or meet much with anyone regularly on campus. Aside from this, my only true obligation was prepping for exams.
  • As a family, we prioritized my studying. We hired a babysitter for the kids while E. taught Summer Start in the mornings. Although it was really difficult listening to them play around the house and in the yard all morning, this gave me 4-5 hours of (granted, often interrupted) study time per day — which was necessary, but not so much time that I screwed around. I owe so much to E. for making this happen.
  • I was flexible with my reading. I went into the summer thinking I’d try to tackle every piece on the list to some extent, but what ended up happening was more modest. Truthfully, I simply prioritized monographs that I hadn’t read before; I ended up reading those thoroughly and (surprisingly) drawing on them extensively in my actual exams. And when I got bogged down with a really difficult text, like Grammar of Motives, I backed off and reminded myself of the overall goal. I skimmed the anthologies but when it came to actually writing the exam, I searched them carefully for potentially relevant arguments for the task at hand. For example, when my first exam asked me to assess Berlin’s influence on the field, I searched each anthology for instances where Rhetoric and Reality or words like historiography were mentioned.
  • I consistently reflected on my study process. Because time felt like the only enemy this summer, it was crucial that I developed — and then constantly reassessed — strategies for studying. At first I thought print notes made sense, but I quickly realized this was slowing me down too much. I also now feel quite silly for trying to write my own exam questions. The practice exam also showed me how much time a week really provides for the task. I needed to know a few core books really, really well (for me they were Hawk’s Counter-History, Berkenktotter and Huckin’s Genre Knowledge, Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, and Horner et al’s recent collection Cross-Language Relations in Composition). Then I needed to be able to map the others. In this way, skimming all the texts and reviews the first week of studying made a lot of sense.

Now that it’s over, I get to focus on Parts Two and Three, which include a annotated bib of 25 books and a publishable article. I met with some potential advisors last week who offered some wonderful, thoughtful and qualified advice on thinking about this important in-between phase. Basically, while I have an article in mind, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the bibliography while prepping for two national conference presentations in the spring, with hopes that the article and one or two diss chapters will organically evolve from that work. So far I have some promising leads on ways of looking at zines and sociocultural theories of process. One of the fundamental questions I’m thinking of asking at this point is: How and where have zine writers learned to do what they do? Where or how did they learn how to compose, participate, and circulate their work? How does their learning continue and what are its implications for importing a DIY ethos in to the composition classroom?

In short, this moment feels as pivotal as it should: full of anxiety, excitement, and all sort of possibility.