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.

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…

Inventing Invention: Anticipating the Exam Question(s)

After spending all of last week (and this weekend) reading four books on the exam list I haven’t engaged much previously, I’ve completed most of the books that could be tagged as composition “histories”:

Berlin, James A. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985. Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Print.

Lauer, Janice M. Invention in Rhetoric and Composition. Annotated edition. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2004. Print.

As I mentioned before, I was trying to read across texts more than within categories, but I started with histories because (1) this would give me a fuller context of the field, and (2) these four books are actually more than histories — they’re an amalgamation of that plus theory and methodologies, and include key discussions of ancient rhetoric, technology, and above all, pedagogy. Hawk’s Counter-History, for example, uses a postmodern, historiographical methodology to revisit the concept of vitalism — an ontological philosophy that can be traced to Aristotle — in order to open up the possibilities for new pedagogies that respond  to contemporary digital technologies. Although Lauer’s Invention is primarily a straightforward history of the canon, she provides numerous sections on pedagogy, a few on technology, and throughout the book discusses various methodologies that have been used to study invention.

Pages from my Muji notebook

Before I begin to synthesize these texts more fully, I want to consider how best to do that. But first let me reassess how I’ve been reading this week, which has tested some of Adler’s methods that I blogged about two weeks ago. First, I’ve started reading each time with Adler’s inspectional method — reading reviews of the books, skimming TOCs and indexes, and in most cases, reading important chapters analytically while inspecting the others (there’s no way I could have read Hawk’s book analytically in full). As I read, I’ve been taking printed notes in one of my nifty Muji notebooks, mostly to try to internalize the info. My hope is that this blog is the final step and will do the real work in preparing for the exam — forcing me to arrange the arguments, methods, and evidence from the books on the list to make strong arguments about the field as a whole. This raises a few fundamental questions for me:

  • How many books should be discussed per post? Incorporating more books in a post (as opposed to individual summaries) would better approximate the requirements of the exam, but waiting to a week to write a post leads to fewer posts (and less writing practice overall).
  • How much summary should I work toward? In other words, what’s the goal of the post? Writing solid summaries are important (and could help me once I am actually writing the exam), but as I discovered from practice exams, I tend to dedicate too much space to it in my responses. Pushing efficient synthesis would be better practice for late July.
  • Perhaps the hardest question is this: what should I write about? In other words, how should I select topics or arguments to blog about as I synthesize? In response to this question, I’ve decided to do something Hawk advocates we teach our own students: to develop our own heuristics depending on our goals. I’m appropriating him here, but I think part of the point of the exam process is anticipating the questions. What conversations are being sustained in composition and rhetoric? What are our fundamental problems? What questions make sense across programs and subfields? What evidence is valued? What is our tradition?

In that spirit, I spent some time yesterday afternoon reading back through my print notes and coming up with some possibilities. I offer a few here; I’ll answer one of these in a subsequent post today or tomorrow. One last thought: I think this method is working well except for one notable drawback: I’m already behind schedule. According to my exam prep calendar, I was supposed to be rereading Cintron’s Angels Town today — and I’ve already skipped over Berkenkotter & Huckin’s Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication. I’ll make up this work somehow, but this already tells me the process is too slow.

  • Lauer’s history in Invention in Rhetoric and Composition ends around 2003 — just before new media and digital writing have arguably dominated the field’s conversations on invention. How can Hawk’s Counter-History be read as a continuation of some of the major strands of Lauer’s history? How could it be read as a critique of her history?
  • Berlin, Crowley, Hawk, and Lauer each frame the rhetorical situation differently. It is essential to Berlin’s three theories of rhetoric (objective, subjective, and transactional); it’s used by Lauer to trace epistemic manifestations of invention; it’s briefly taken up by Crowley to discredit the stability of the academic essay (and hence the universal requirement for FYC); and finally, it is critiqued most explicitly by Hawk as being too static. Evaluate these positions and ultimately make a case for the 21st century conception of the rhetorical situation.
  • These four books each try to come to terms with composition’s past, but do so using various historiographical methods — and for specific purposes. Make these purposes explicit and explain the extent to which their various methodologies succeed or fail to meet them.
  • Invention, according to Lauer, was largely ignored in the first half of the 20th century because current traditional pedagogies assumed it couldn’t be taught. Hawk’s book, then, could be read as a response to the way this schism affected subsequent histories of invention and, thus, precludes an understanding of its uses for the 21st century. Explain the extent to which Hawk’s critique of Berlin supports this perspective.

Skimming for Exams (Part 2)

So skimming 20 texts for today was … ambitious. What I’m finding to be a chore with the remainder of the list — the stuff I’m more familiar with — is that I have to dig around in my digital and print files to find old notes, blog posts, texts, and other documents. And in that process, I inevitably get bogged down in rote activities, like copying and pasting texts from one format into another so I can read an annotate on the iPad.

In a sense, though, skimming generates accountability to my exam archive. That is, I’m constantly checking to see what I have, where it’s located, and how I might make use of it later. I’m also continuing to get a sense of how to read across the courses, and seeing ways that the anthologies (Horner et al’s Cross-Language Relations for instance) serve as productive sites for resisting those silos as they contain histories, methodologies, pedagogies, and are usually framed with theory. The anthologies, too, include some the more recent texts from the field.

Anyway, I’ll have to finish my skimming this weekend and then start thinking of ways to prioritize the next stage of the process, which is to tunnel down into clusters (organized perhaps by common problems in the field?) and try to write blog posts every few days that synthesize their arguments.

Skimming for Exams (Part 1)

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My list of unread works in Zotero

Today I managed to take a bite out of the 15 books I haven’t read from the exam list. In most cases I skimmed TOCs, published reviews, and some notes from coursework that my peers were generous enough to share. This was enough at least to allow me to produce a one-sentence summary of the text and tag them for future reading. This took about six hours. I used my Apimac timer to limit myself to ten minutes per text — which was awesome — but took time in between to organize files, search for book reviews, etc. I have to admit that reading scattered like this felt unnatural and wasn’t much fun, but I feel like it’s helping me to strategize how I’ll approach various ideas and readings later — not to mention that it’s pretty amazing how much you can familiarize yourself with in just ten minutes. So much so, that I think I’ll keep using this method over the next few days with the whole list just so I can make abstract, distant connections as I begin to zoom in closer to specific ideas.

And to return to an idea I discussed yesterday, because of this approach, I’m starting to respect the syntopical nature of these texts. Janice Lauer’s Invention in Rhetoric and Composition, for instance, could have been read as a secondary text for ancient rhetoric, an important tool for comp pedagogy, or even just a general history of the field. Byron Hawk’s Counter-History is historical, pedagogical, and theoretical at once — oh, and he critiques Lauer (something I would not have known that if I read linearly or stubbornly). Tomorrow I hope to get through 20 texts that I’ve had some contact with previously. If I succeed, that’ll bring me up to 35 — and close to skimming the whole list.

(Un)learning to read

As I understand it, the bottom-line challenge of the exam process is streamlining the reading process; given such a limited amount of time before exams (our first Q will be given at the end of July), how will I demonstrate that I “understand” 40+ works, 90% of which are books? As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve read more than half of these already (some as far back as four years ago), but I have a list of 15 books I’ve never touched — and some of these are quite seminal and dense (Burke’s Grammar of Motives, Booth’s Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, and Baca & Villanueva’s Rhetorics of the Americas). The problem, of course, hinges on one’s definition of “understanding.” In my last semester of coursework I was able to take only one class — Contemporary Rhetorical Theory — where I had the luxury of reading theory very closely. I didn’t understand all of it, obviously, but I left feeling confident that I could summarize and synthesize difficult arguments competently. But it’s clear that the exam process is more about breadth and distance than reading closely; it feels like the difference between training for a 5k versus a marathon.

Adding to some of this confusion, throughout coursework different professors groomed different reading methods. Some assigned more reading and advocated robust skimming — sometimes even distributing the reading responsibilities among the class. Others assigned fewer texts, but expected students to know them well enough to explicate nearly every chapter or article. The truth is, both skills are necessary and for this reason (I think) one of my profs recommended Mortimer Adler’s 1940 classic How to Read a Book. Adler argues that because “[w]e do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it” (4) and promotes an active, inquiry-based reading strategy via four, cumulative levels. The first level, elementary reading, is basic reading — “recognizing individual words on the page” (17). The second is inspectional, where the reader must glean the most from the surface of a text in a limited amount of time using certain tools like tables of contents, indices, headings and paragraphs, and summaries. The third level, analytical reading, is thorough, active, and close reading — the kind that English majors are taught early and often. The final level is syntopical reading, a systemic approach to comparative reading: “[w]hen reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve” (20); moreover, syntopical reading is transactional in that it can generate ideas from books where the topic or subject might not even be present. For example, in comparing various texts on composition pedagogy, I might notice that some address technology in a certain way while others don’t address it much at all. All levels of reading are present within the exam process and I found Adler’s advice throughout the book to be both a mix of general good reminders and some new ideas for reading strategically.

The inspectional section, for instance, recommends commonsense tips, like reading a publisher’s blurb or the table of contents, but I never actually thought to read an index. It also pushes for surface reading: “[t]humb through the book … always looking for signs of the main contention, listening for the basic pulsebeat of the matter” (35). At the moment, such advice sounds like just as obvious as reading a TOC, but after being dominated by elementary and analytical approaches for 30+ years, it’s helpful to hear it again and again. After reading Adler, I feel like apprenticing academics should permit themselves more time to read inspectionally. The chapter also recommends not stopping when reading through a difficult text for the first time. At the same time, the book argues that readers cannot comprehend a book without performing an analytical reading. Inspectional reading, it’s argued later, is for finding works relevant to a particular inquiry, which might make it seem somewhat limited for the exam process — but I think part of the process of preparing is sketching those inquiries that are fundamental to the field. So although I might not be generating my own questions, I do need to make connections across texts that are fairly general and that are generated by a deductive approach to reading. I can see using inspectional reading the first time through, and again later during practice tests or as I prewrite for the actual exam.

Adler splits the third level, analytical reading, into three stages: summary, interpretation, and criticism. In the first stage, he advises finding out what the author’s problems are and the questions necessary for answering them. I like this tip in the exam process since the exam questions themselves essentially ask us to either address, define, or explore various problems in the field. The more I can do to zoom out and map common problems the easier I imagine it will be to put them in dialogue. In the second stage, Adler advises that readers come to terms with key concepts in the books they are reading. For example, as I read, I might look at how various scholars are defining “history,” “pedagogy,” “rhetoric” or “composition” — and then what they do with those definitions, which is more important to syntopical reading. Finally, he also provides a taxonomy for criticism that might serve as a useful heuristic at some point; when critiquing authors, one might demonstrate how they are either uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete in their analysis. I’m not sure how much of this I’ll be doing in the exam; as I understand it, it’s more important for us to read generously and analytically.

The final section of How to Read a Book, on syntopical reading, was perhaps the most useful as it provides several suggestions on reading across many texts. In doing so, Adler identifies a key paradox and one that I’ve struggled with in organizing my categories for the exam: “[a]lthough this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it.” (313). The important thing with this goes back to something I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Although reading taxonomically makes sense in structuring my time, it is important to think about the larger goals of the exam, which is to sketch key conversations/problems in the field. For example, if I read Berlin, Crowley, and Hawk under the “histories” topic, I might overlook or under-appreciate their arguments and thus, the implications of their work for the field; hence, I might miss opportunities to use their work in structuring arguments in the “pedagogies” question on the exam (I’m thinking of Crowley’s book in particular). And thanks to a meeting today with my cohort and the good advice of our grad chair, I’ll be taking a different approach to my reading, to privilege a more syntopical approach that has me studying texts across categories rather than siloing them. This means not canceling out any course reading, but being open to the list in its entirety. And that’s more in the spirit of the exam, as I learned today.

In sum, here’s what I’m thinking in terms of an approach:

1. Spend a few days inspectionally reading the works I haven’t read — and maybe a few that I’ve read or skimmed that are hazy. This way I’ll have a full understanding of the list. I might even inspectionally read the entire list — and with a timer (10-15 minutes per book?) — so I don’t trick myself into analytical reading.
2. Then spend the next few weeks diversifying my analytical reading across areas — perhaps reading one book from histories, technology, pedagogy, ancient rhetoric, theory, and methods each week instead of spending each week on one topic. I might try to group these based on my initial inspectional reading so they’re not grouped completely arbitrarily. Or I might simply prioritize those books I want to read first.
3. Write often. It became clear to me from yesterday’s post, I need to do a better job articulating myself. The worst thing to do throughout this process is read a lot and write nothing.

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.

Cause = Time

I imagine it’s fairly commonplace for bloggers to apologize for neglecting their respective blogospheres, so for that cliche alone, I refuse to do it. That said, if I’m serious about getting to that good place where I can “think like a writer” — and I’m reminded of what a distant land that place is no matter who you are — then I am required to enact self-discipline.

The problem is that I privately promise myself that I’ll eventually make time for the blog. But as the dates can attest, since early October I’ve been making one of the following excuses:

-“AM will wake up by [insert time here] so it’s pointless to start a new entry”
-“I have coursework to do; the blog isn’t obligatory”
-“I need to respond to an eWC request”
-“My WRT 307 lesson plan isn’t ready for tomorrow”
-“I should be running”
-“What are we having for dinner?”
-“My RSS feed is already telling me I have 1,000+ unread items”
-“I’m hungry” (<– not really)

In How to Write a Lot Paul Silva frames this problem neatly: “Finding time is a destructive way of thinking about writing. Never say this again.” Writers, he argues, need to allot time to write. That means no email, Facebook, shower, or coffee (which is where I draw the line) until I’ve met my daily writing goal.

So here it is. Starting tomorrow, after I brew my coffee, I’m allotting the first hour of every day to the blog. See you bright and early. Cause = time.