Category Archives: Interviews & Profiles

Investigating History through Archives and Interviews: A talk by Dr. Maury Klein

Dr. Maury Klein, a URI professor of history emeritus, offered his insights into to the world of historical research through archives and interviews this March at the CI. The event had a wonderful turnout with people from across disciplines at URI—from oceanography researchers to land trust stewards, English doctoral students to urban park managers—all coming out to learn how Dr. Klein makes the most of historical research and the stories it offers which can’t be found online, at the library, or in the field. Though Dr. Klein’s research is not within a scientific field, there were many takeaways for those looking to communicate science effectively to a broad public audience.

Histories Mysteries and Science’s Secrets – Disciplinary Detective Work

He opened by addressing the ways in which scientific and historical research are not so different—both seek answers like detectives in a mystery story—one in the material present, and the other in the recorded past. Though he has researched scientists, such as James Van Allen, he does not do research in labs or in the field. Or, rather, his lab and field lay elsewhere—in the interview room, library, internet, or archive—and most curiously—in the unsuspecting ways these sites overlap to lead him to obscure holdings. He has found key information that allowed him to tell the story of important histories in overlooked bookshelves of family cabins, centuries old train station warehouse dumpsters, or even as a result of a phone call from a stranger.

Nine Rules of Effective Research Learned from Five Decades of Successful Practice

Dr. Klein notes that research, regardless of discipline, shares many of the same characteristics. Keeping these characteristics in mind explicitly is his rule for producing the effective research that led to his nineteen books and numerous essays.

  1. Patience – the time and effort it takes to comb through all the sources you will need to view for a research project can be overwhelming. This can even seem like more than you can manage. His advice is, rather than think about the whole, to just continue to do the next thing.
  2. Persistence – even though you can only ever do the next thing, you must continue this effort even if the end is not in sight.
  3. Imagination – research is directed by the questions you ask. You don’t know what you don’t know, yet, with research you can’t find an answer without a question. You need to be able to imagine a question that reaches beyond what you already know.
  4. Proportion – knowing when, where, and how to cut off your research is key. Knowing how to limit the scope of a project is a first step towards this despite the imaginative leap that begins an endeavor. It is important to keep in mind that if you never finish the research, especially with something as large as a book or dissertation, it won’t matter since no one will ever see it. You need to be able to decide when to stop looking and start telling the story.
  5. Clear focus – it is difficult to read things and only look for what you are looking for, but you need to be able to do this or no amount of persistence and patience will turn your research into a story you can tell.
  6. Making Connections – the core of education is making connections between things you never saw before encountering them in close proximity. He shares how, as an undergraduate he had a common aha moment when he started to see that all the classes are connected despite their different ways of seeing the same things. It is the same at the research level. Things that seem inconsequential end up being connected, and even changing the direction of what you are doing entirely.
  7. Organization – his method for organizing his sources and notes appears to be almost archival in itself. The more stuff you have the more organized you need to be. You never want to be looking for something endlessly just in order to finish a sentence when you are finally telling the story.
  8. Style – style is about not just writing but finding a way for how you want to do the research and story drafting itself. This is a way of navigating stuff. The same system won’t work for everyone but everyone needs a system, even if it is of their own making.
  9. Judgment – you are constantly making decisions as a researcher in small ways—about where you will look, what you will address next, what is important, what the connections are. You also need to decide what will the source allow you to do, what the source tells you, how does it help you answer your question, what is the data telling you? It will not be self-evident. The more contextual and background information you know before you start, the easier it is to decide.

Though all this may sound overwhelming itself, he adds that research is fun if you like doing it. He always used to tell students who would ask: what can you do with a history major? – if you chose not to find a career doing what you like to do you’ll end up a miserable rich person. The research you do comes down to the size of what you are trying to accomplish – small projects will involve more targeted searching, and large ones comprehensive immersions – regardless of size however, you can’t control where the material takes you, and you must be willing to follow it to find the story you need to tell.

Plumbing the Archives

Here are Dr. Klein’s practical tips on doing archival work:

-Don’t take notes. You don’t know what you will need later. Always photocopy, scan, or photograph sources when possible.

-Don’t just look for primary sources, archival holdings of researchers materials also sometimes contain original documents from their own archival work, much of which may have become lost or is now even harder to access.

-You must do the initial leg work to find out where the holdings are which you need to access; this is not as straight forward as typical library searches.

-Go look at things yourself and don’t have someone do your research for you, they will make decisions for you and since you don’t know exactly what you are looking for until you find it, this can lead to missed opportunities.

-You need your own system of determining what is of interest.

-Companies that are around for a long time often hold on to centuries of records comprehensively. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-Large and/or important families often hang on to archival items until the death of the last surviving kin, often things get lost. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-A source on one thing will often convey information about something else; for example, he once found 19th century railway engineer notebooks that contain much flora and fauna notes about surrounding landscape which they were laying track through.

-Periodicals are a great source because they don’t know what is coming next so they are good for giving you the tone of the day.

Instigating Interviews

Dr. Klein notes that, often, there isn’t always enough direct primary source material to make a source driven story, so you may need to branch out. Interviews are both a good way to do this, and to find additional sources. He suggests asking people for introductions to other people you can interview to help you with your story, this often leads back to archival holdings you would not otherwise have found. Inventory who you know. Keep track of who they know. Ask around.

When there is a generation of people outgoing you can often convince a company or organization to debrief the outgoing staff and get a good story that would otherwise have been lost, or good leads. Hence, interviews often lead to unforeseen research directions, and will help you bring your story to life later, connecting it to real and present world. With contemporary history, interviews are more important often than the archival documents. Finally, and most importantly, Klein urges researchers to always record an interview, and back it up ASAP. If you do lose it, however, you can call back and say: I had some follow up questions. Use this call to clarify key information minimizing what is lost.

Telling the Story

For Dr. Klein, how he organizes his notes and sources on archival documents and interviews corresponds to how he will write the story they tell. He picks what stories to tell several ways. Sometimes it is assigned to him – an opportunity presents itself from a publisher, educational organization, or even law firm, and he accepts it if it intrigues him. Other times he decides on his own to pursue something. In this case it is often something he wants to know more about – and what better way. The point is that you never know where a topic will come from. You never know where your research is going to take you or what further avenues it is going to open up for you. It used to always be important to answer the phone as the vanguard of career success, now it is never ignore an email, explore every opportunity. Klein explains one often blunders into things. He seems to say, however, that in order to do so, you must already be immersing yourself in an area, rather than researching narrowly or transactionally. You need to carve out the space to do exploratory work and the story will usually reveal itself. When thinking about how to tell a story – how to present information so that it does not overwhelm a reader, Dr. Klein explains the way you communicate will depend on how you approach the research. For him, this leads to a sort of condensed style. He likes to say as much as he can in as small a space as possible, this leads to succinct and dense sentences and necessitates using active verbs, the opposite of, say, a Victorian style.

Most importantly, you need to be able to see the scaffolding of the story the data will tell. When a story has not been told yet it isn’t usually because the facts aren’t known, so much as it is that researchers haven’t yet found a way to scaffold the information. The scaffolding – or organizational structure – emerges during the research stage, which you make explicit in your telling. When revising his stories, he follows the same style of condensation, rather than altering the scaffolding and reorganizing or removing whole sections. He goes page by page reducing each by an equal percentage. All of this – research and writing – are more achievable if you have regular work habits – a routine that you follow. For him, this is writing seven days a week, every morning at least. He doesn’t take vacations because his work is fun. Regarding the presentation of quantitative data, he suggests always writing at a level comprehensible by a non-technical reader. He also suggests not so much explicating the data as providing it alongside a qualitative narrative which emerged from it.

 

The Job Market: An Interview with Amy Foley

This past fall, Amy Foley went on the job market for the first time. She was kind enough to answer some questions about the process and give some advice to those of us who will one day have to go through the same process. Her interview is below.

First of all, congratulations on finishing your PhD in four years! That’s truly impressive. This last fall, you went on the job market for the first time, and, as something many of us are looking forward to and also dreading, thanks for letting us pick your brain!

1. Given the state of higher education and the cuts to permanent positions happening throughout the academy, how did you feel about the number of tenure track/full time jobs that were available in your area? Were there as many as you expected? Fewer? Were you forced to stretch your area to cover certain job calls?

I was surprised that there were as many jobs as there were in the fall of 2016. I have very strong feelings about our use of the phrase “going on the market,” which reminds one of a nineteenth century debutante ball. This phrase is unnecessarily intimidating for many candidates and implies a level of importance in higher education that I think we could all do without.  Yes, our profession requires a level of preparation and a portfolio that some careers do not, but many other professions do require similar preparation or an even more rigorous application process, yet do not use this kind of simultaneously self-aggrandizing and debasing language. I did not feel disappointed about the number of jobs available since my attitude is that you only need one interested party, which is why I think candidates should apply to as many jobs as they can handle in a given time. I suppose that if you do not see the process as a coming out ball, then you will not feel rejected by a scarcity of suitors.
I was looking at primarily twentieth and twentieth first century literature positions. They were all in North America, though I will be expanding my search internationally in the future. I found some that were specific to one of my areas in global modernism. Roughly half of the ten full time positions to which I applied were in modernism. The others were more generalist or focused on specific topics that were of interest to me, such as environmental studies. I did not feel forced to apply to any jobs that were not of interest.
2. How did you prioritize which jobs to apply for?
 Since I was still writing the last two chapters of my dissertation while teaching, working as a research assistant, conferencing, and doing the service work (as we all do), I had limited time for applications this year.  I decided to apply to at least ten full time positions. As it turned out, that number somewhat matched the number of jobs I felt qualified to apply for or positions that seemed like a good fit. I am primarily interested in full time positions that require or allow me to pursue research and writing along with teaching, so I applied to the jobs that clearly facilitated both. All of the jobs to which I applied I discovered through the MLA Jobs List and HigherEdJobs. In the future, I plan to cast a much wider net.
3. What was the most time-consuming part of the process? The most difficult?
The most time-consuming part of the process was composing the first set of cover letters and any extra materials required by an application. I had not actually assembled my teaching portfolio beforehand and only one position required it. This was very time-consuming, and I would recommend putting it together earlier since it is not particularly difficult. It was also time-consuming to revise and edit one chapter of my dissertation as a writing sample since I had written it so recently and had not revised the dissertation yet. I knew it would be tough to write applications while in the middle of the dissertation and working toward a definite deadline, but I felt it was good for my own morale and experience.
4. If there was one thing you wish you’d done before you started applying to make the process easier, what would that be?
I wish I had known when I began teaching in different institutions nine years ago to hold onto student evaluations. I was very far from applying to full time positions then and did not know that those would be valuable later.
At this point, I do wish I would have applied to more postdoctoral positions, but I do not know when I would have done those on top of the work I was able to complete. Now that I am finishing my graduate career, I can focus more on postdoctoral jobs and full time applications. I would advise candidates to complete all materials that are not job-specific in the summer if possible. Teaching statements, writing samples, teaching portfolios, research statements, and dossiers can all be done ahead of time. Have as many faculty in your discipline and area as possible read your materials.
I stayed very organized throughout the process, keeping track of all descriptions and document submissions. I kept a list of jobs, descriptions, and deadlines, which I shared with my recommenders. I also gave them specific instructions for submitting letters for each job, which I think reduced chaos significantly. I wanted to make the process as painless as possible for my recommenders since these are the people supporting me the most.
5. Were you surprised by any part of the process, or was it about what you expected?
I was ABD at the time I applied. I did not receive any calls for interviews, which is exactly what I expected. I am not being self-disparaging. From everything I have read, the job market changes significantly for many candidates after having a doctorate in hand. I still consider it well-spent time, and now I have a greater advantage for my applications in the future.

Interview with Department Chair, Dr. Travis Williams

  1. What do you think are some of the challenges facing the department?

Numbers. We need more undergraduate and graduate enrollment, and we also need more full-time faculty hires. As usual, of course, we also need more funding at every level. These things all work together: the more undergraduates that are enrolled, the more teachers we can hire. Higher enrollment in the graduate program is also vital, especially completed degrees because that satisfies the University. In very basic ways, it provides the reasons for why we exist

  1. On the heels of that, do those challenges change in the wake of the recent election results?

Yes. We are very worried about the election results. Money for the humanities is already comparatively low and it could get even lower if the state does not receive the funding that it usually receives. There are three direct ways it could affect us: first, if there is a decrease in direct aid to students (in the form of grant aide, scholarship aide, and fellowship aide at every level); second, if student loans continue to be as expensive as they are in terms of interest rates, or it they get worse; third, if science funding really decreases. It is not an exaggeration to think that this may be a very anti-science administration and Congress. If funding for science is cut, then the University may feel the need to redistribute its funds, and that could mean that it would squeeze the humanities even more than it does already.

I am also worried about the revival of the kinds of culture wars of the late 80s with attacks on things like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which were really terrible and from which I don’t think we have yet properly recovered. I don’t see any positive change happening there either.

  1. What new things are being talked about in the department?

 Back to the numbers question. We are trying be more organized and deliberate about how we recruit students to our various programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level, how we retain them once they are here, and how we keep in touch with them once they’ve left us. And I think in various different ways – undergraduate to graduate— we are trying to re-conceptualize what these programs are really meant to be doing and how we present them and sell them, frankly, to the people we want to be participating in them. As we know, the issue at the graduate level is that there are many, many more PhDs than there are academic jobs and I don’t see that changing considering the last question concerning the federal situation. So, re-conceptualizing what one can do with a PhD in the humanities, something that Professor Davis is working really hard on right now, and that might lead to changes in the structuring of programs, the offerings available, different tracks within a degree that people might choose from. It is all very new so none of that is certain yet, but it is what we are talking about very seriously because it is a market world and we have to move with the market. We are no longer insulated, if we ever were, from these pressures.

 At the undergraduate level, where we’ve lost 40 percent of our majors in the last eight years we need to allay fears that an undergraduate degree in English is a dead end where basically a productive career and financial security is not attainable. It certainly is not a dead end and there is plenty of evidence to show that, but that evidence has not yet caught up with the people who make larger, broader decisions at the University. And parents are still quite anxious about what a degree in English may or may not do for their children. So, representing ourselves, speaking more clearly and finding opportunities to make contact with these groups is something I am working very hard on as chair.

  1. How is the department talking about hot issues, such as adjuncts?

 Adjuncts are certainly not an ideal way to staff courses. Tenure track is always best. Here at URI we have gone from 28 to 17 tenure track positions since 2006 and we still offer so many classes. This is a poor labor and pedagogical model, especially when we think that the undergraduate needs to build relationships with the faculty. Also, tenure tracks are here for a long time, which is of course not the case with itinerant faculty. We also need to make more generous working conditions for adjuncts. We need to bring them in. We need to extend the invitation to participate. And we also need to increase morale among adjuncts.

  1. What are some goals that you have for the department? What are some of the things that you want to get done in your time as chair that you would like people to know about?

 As chair, I first want to keep things running smoothly. As for goals, we want to work on increasing numbers, which we have talked about. We need to fundraise for all kinds of reasons. We need to contact alumni. We need more general student support in the form of scholarships, fellowships, grants, etc. We also need to expand overseas activities and we need to draw more support for that. We need to grow our creative writing activities. We need to do more things like micro-scholarships to help poorer students. And we need more secure funding at the graduate level, especially in the form of endowed scholarships. That is more of a long-term goal. These are some of the things I will be working on.

Margo Jefferson: The conversation started at the URI OSSWC continues

In the third episode of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities podcast celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, Margo Jefferson considers the intersection of journalism, the humanities, and the environment. Topics in the interview cover the tension between scholars and journalists, the possibilities for the 21st century essay, and the cultural environments that inform Jefferson’s work. From the traditional essay published as a book to an online version scored to music, the possibilities for this “theater of the mind” have expanded greatly in this last century. A keynote speaker at this last year’s Ocean State Summer Writer’s Conference, the meeting of academics and creative writers is also given attention towards the end of this insightful conversation.

http://rihumanities.org/program/pulitzer/

Student Spotlight: Barbara Farnworth

Hi, my name is Barbara Farnworth and I am a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the English Department. I completed my Qualifying Exams in April 2016 and am currently working on my dissertation proposal. I am examining humor in nineteenth-century British literature, more specifically, how women writers incorporate irony and satire in their fiction.  As I began examining humor in nineteenth-century fiction, I noticed that Jane Austen is the only nineteenth-century woman included in humor anthologies. When I developed my reading list for exams, my guiding question was: what happened to humor in women’s writing after Austen?  I discovered several non-canonical authors who included irony and satire in their works. I also explored canonical authors whose humor has not received a great deal of critical attention. For my dissertation proposal, I am concentrating on how these authors employed their narrators to communicate humor. Currently, I am reading narrative theory regarding free indirect discourse and its ability to express irony.

On the home front, my daughter, Chrissy, is in her senior year at Hampshire College majoring in either animal behavior or adolescent psychology, depending on when you ask her. This year she will complete her senior project which, at Hampshire, is similar to a master’s thesis. My husband Mike and I are known as the crazy dog people of the neighborhood. We have two golden retrievers, who are couch potatoes, and a black lab who is obsessed with retrieving tennis balls. Chrissy has a dog of her own, a black lab mix, so when she is home from college we have four (yes 4!) 70 pound dogs at our house.  Currently, Mike is attending a program with our youngest dog that will result in her becoming certified as a Pet Assisted Therapy dog.

I’m happy to report that, after several months of sitting on my butt and eating junk food while studying for my exams, I am finally exercising again. This summer I expanded my exercise routine with spinning and Pilates classes. Spinning is so addictive that I am participating in the 8 a.m. class at the Fitness Center with the undergraduates.  Of course, I’m still eating the junk food!

 

Student Spotlight: Amy Foley

img_20160908_163433-1I am a fourth year PhD candidate at URI in Literature and Cultural Studies. I am currently in the process of writing my dissertation, entitled “Doorways to Being: Modernism and ‘Lived’ Architectures,” on phenomenology and architectural experience in select modernist fiction. My dissertation work began during the summer after my first year, when I began reading and rereading the writings of Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf. I was struck by the ways in which these texts narrate our everyday bodily experiences with our material environment and the modernist proposal of a new ontology and engagement. I continue to explore and reimagine how phenomenology intersects with cultural studies, particularly in the philosophies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Benjamin.

This fall, I will attend the International Merleau-Ponty Conference in St. Catharines, Ontario to introduce keynote speaker, Rudolf Bernet’s discussion on “A Portrait of the Writer as a Philosopher.” Much of my critical writing during the program has revolved around this very concern. I have presented on Rilke’s spiritual ideas and his philosophy of sound and silence in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge at NeMLA (Northeastern Modern Language Association). Also at NeMLA, I presented on Woolf’s temporal philosophy in Between the Acts. I continue to write on Woolf in a transatlantic, political, and philosophical context. In my long-term scholarship, the phenomenology of the body as it is philosophized in the modern novel is a burgeoning and ongoing concern; furthermore, I question to what extent fiction in its many forms instructs our “lived” motion in the world, borrowing language from Merleau-Ponty.

Modernism in a global and imperialist context is central to my research as well. In 2015, I won the URI Center for the Humanities Graduate Research Grant and the Hunt Scholarship from the Faulkner Society to study the architectures of Faulkner’s milieu in Oxford, Mississippi. While researching southern architectural history, I presented on Faulkner’s use of the mystery genre in relation to nineteenth century German southern mysteries at the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference. In addition to the Global South, I have written on the fiction and non-fiction of Colm Tóibín in relation to Irish identity and the postcolonial collective consciousness. In my interview, “An Austere, Whispering Power: An Interview with Colm Tóibín,” I ask the author about short fiction genres in relation to Irish identity, as well as many other subjects such as family and sexuality as they exist in his writing.

I am also a writer of fiction. My stories are concerned with memory, the power of things, aloneness, permission and  the nebulousness of knowledge and events, the intersection of similarly and oppositionally politicized identities, and friendship. I am continually studying the relationship between my scholarly study of modernism and its effect on my fiction. My work has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture and Hotel Amerika, and is now under review with the Mississippi Quarterly and the Journal of Modern Literature.

I have enjoyed a range of teaching environments and experiences in my career. As an adjunct faculty person prior to my time at URI, I taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Monroe Community College, Roberts Wesleyan College, and at the U.S. Coast Guard in Rochester, New York. I have been fortunate to teach an array of courses at URI and elsewhere, such as Introduction to Literature, World Literature, The Short Story, Mythology, Ethnicity and Cultural Difference, Composition, and Advanced Composition. At URI, my role as Teaching Assistant Mentor allows me to regularly exchange pedagogical concerns with my graduate colleagues. The time I have spent with faculty and students at URI has been essential for my growth as a writer, scholar and teacher; I so look forward to another astonishing and stimulating year with everyone

Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: The Prep is Over and the Hour has Arrived, On Taking the Written and Oral Exams (Part 3 of3)

As with the previous two posts on this topic, I hope you find comfort, insight, and advice in reading about those doctoral students and candidates interviewed on the exam process. Where ever you are in the process yourself, may it help you to know others have been there before you and survived, and fortify you as you craft your own path to candidacy through the examination process. This summer, as I prepared for my own exams in the fall (fingers-crossed), I decided to interview some of my fellow PhD student community (both within and outside our own program) on how they approached the comprehensive exam process. Below you will find the result of these ‘conversations’ with students as they reflect on the process during and after its completion. This final installment will address student’s responses to the process of taking the written exam and preparing for the oral one. Check out the previous two discussions from earlier in the summer of how people approached the list and rationale composition process and prepared for the exams!

Question: How did you and your committee decide when you were ready to take your exams?

Response 1: “When my major professor approved my rationales and sent them out to the committee, she had set a general date a few months in the future to plan for the exam. So that’s what I stuck with. If I have a deadline, that’s the deadline for me to be ready, so that worked for me. There wasn’t really much discussion.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “I told my committee in the spring that I would want to take my exams by a particular date in the fall and they were gracious enough to make sure they were available around that time. I made it a fixed date in August, and I made sure that I was ready.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “We set a date and stuck to it, because trying to schedule us all at another date would have been a pain in the ass.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

Question: What approach did you take to completing your written exams? What had you done in advance to make writing easier? Did you outline before composing? Free-write? How much time did you leave to revise?

Response 1: “I’m not much of a “pre-writer” so I again wrote my exams in much the same way I write papers. I chose which texts I wanted to use for each question (this was maybe the hardest part, because I had multiple texts that would work for multiple questions, so deciding which one they would be “best” for was a pain), then I just sat down and wrote. I had a general timeline. I wanted to finish each paper in two days, then have a day for revising, and I stuck to this. I actually finished the first question in a day, the second in an easy two, then the third in two and a half. It was more that I was just tired of writing, so writing fatigue is definitely a thing. I hate reading and editing my own work, so I really just read through them once or twice. Others might not want to replicate that. It’s perhaps not the best strategy.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “I wrote a very brief mock essay for a research group in the summer before my exams, but that did not help me much. That writing is coming in handy now, as I am writing my dissertation. My advice is just to read and take notes while preparing. For the exams themselves, I made a very rough bulleted outline with some key texts and references included. I mostly just wrote freely. It was important to have a thesis and make sure that all of my points related to that thesis. For the first part of the written exam, I wrote roughly 6-8 pages a day for 6 days. I worked a full workday each day from 8-5pm. In the evening, I ate dinner with my husband and watched TV. On the last day, I just read through and edited the 45-50 pages I had written. It was intense writing, but it doesn’t have to be stressful or dramatic if you budget your time accordingly.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “I wrote as much as possible beforehand. For two of the three questions, I had a good idea of what the question would be, and so I wrote lots of rough material for those questions in the week or two before the exam. I took a guess about the question I knew nothing about, and though most of what I wrote for it wasn’t useful, some was. Before the exam, I’d say I wrote about 7,000 words and used maybe 5,000 of those words for the exam itself. Some just sentences or fragments, some whole paragraphs. Then I wove them together during the exam and expanded on them, for a total of something a bit over 13,000 words, I think. A bit long, but I didn’t edit or revise. My examiners told me it had a sort of chatty feel at times, and that was purely the result of my typing without looking back, because I thought it would be more important to show them that I really did know what I was talking about, and it was the ridiculous exercise itself that was getting in my way. It was coherent and academic, it showed I knew what I was talking about, but it made no pretense of being polished writing. It was me typing as fast as I could and never looking back. (This led to a little bit of anxiety at the oral exam because I’d forgotten what I’d written about a few things, and examiners would point to specific passages and I’d have to try to reconstruct my thoughts. But it worked out okay.)” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

Question: Once you had passed your written exams, how did you go about preparing for your orals?

Response 1: “I really just read through the papers again and thought about stuff that I had wanted to say but hadn’t had a chance to, or stuff I wish I had said differently. My orals opened with me giving a short ten minute intro where I could lay out how I thought the exams had helped me, what I had discovered in writing them, what I wish I had done differently, etc. so I kind of got to set the tone for what we focused on. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t get some questions asking me to clarify or pushing me on some of the points that weren’t the focus of my intro, but it was nice to kind of set the goals for the oral.” (Kim Wickham)

Response 2: “prepared for my oral exams by simply rereading what I had written. My major professor also asked that I give a ten minute presentation to the committee. I discussed what I would revise if I had more time and any other thoughts or considerations I had about the questions. I also had talking points on my writing process and any discoveries I had made during the exam.” (Amy Foley)

Response 3: “I went to New York City and didn’t think about any of it until the day before, when I looked over a few books I thought might be useful. The questions told me what the examiners were looking for, and I felt that my preparation had been strong in those areas. I figured that if I wasn’t prepared at that point, I never would be. It’s not something you can really cram for, or at least I didn’t think it was something I could really cram for, nor did I want to. By that point, I knew my fields, I knew my own perspective on my fields, and I had opinions about things. I was able to have a conversation about my fields with other people who were well informed. It was actually a lot of fun. But I also don’t have a committee of people who wanted to trip me up with irrelevant trivia. We were a group of academics having an informed conversation about what we care most deeply about in our academic lives. I’m grateful for that experience.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire)

Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Strategies for Reading and Annotating the Texts on Your List (Part 2 of 3)

As with the previous post on this topic, I hope you find comfort, insight, and advice in reading about those doctoral students and candidates interviewed below on their exam process. Where ever you are in the process yourself, may it help you to know others have been there before you and survived, and may these responses also fortify you as you craft your own path to candidacy through the examination process. This summer, as I prepared for my own exams in the fall (fingers-crossed), I decided to interview some of my fellow PhD student community (both within and outside our own program) on how they approached the comprehensive exam process. Below you will find the result of these ‘conversations’ with students as they reflect on the process during and after its completion. This second installment will address student’s responses to the process of preparing for their exams. Check out the previous discussion from earlier in the summer on how people approached the list and rationale composition process and keep an eye out for the final installment as students discuss how they approached the actual taking of the exams!

Question: How did you schedule/budget your time while preparing for exams?

Response 1: “I didn’t really have a clear schedule. My goal was to just get through as much as I could as fast as I could. I would have good weeks where I’d get through a book every day or two, then not so productive weeks where I wouldn’t. If I found something was taking me a really long time to get through (what’s up Auerbach’s Mimesis), I would move onto something else and just read that a little at a time. So I think it took me like two weeks to get through Mimesis, reading only a little each day, but I was also simultaneously reading other texts. This seemed to work for me. I made it through everything on all my lists.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I wanted to take my exams as early as possible during my third year. I began preparing as soon as my lists and rationale was approved in late May. We have three lists of texts. I essentially devoted one month to each list. This worked out to roughly a book a day, which I did not accomplish since my literary texts were almost all novels and many of them quite long. I tackled the longer or more demanding works that I had not read before first, leaving the shorter novels or texts I had read before till the end of the month or even till the end of the summer. When I realized how few works I could actually include in my exams, I decided which ones I wanted to write about the most and reviewed or reread those in early September.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I laughed out loud at this question. My reading has been more spread out than most, I think, so it’s hard to give a real sense of a daily schedule. I’m trying to read for at least 4 hours each day, knowing I have “real life” and a wedding to plan that consistently get in the way. Now that wedding planning is over, my hope is to read for at least 6 hours a day. I’ve heard/been told to aim for 8 hours a day, but know that would be physically and mentally draining for me personally. Knowing your own habits and thresholds is really helpful in figuring out a true timeline” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I over budgeted knowing I am a slow reader. I just divided the amount of time I had by the number of texts I needed to read and pretended I would spend a lot less time reading than I actually will. I have been reading for about 6 hours a day 5 days a week so far as I finish up side projects but hope to speed up to 8 to 10 hours a day 6 days a week in the coming weeks as those projects get completed. I am also not working this summer in order to study, something I had to budget for in advance.  I should say also that I have only read about 1/3 of everything and *hope* to reread even those items before taking my exams.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “Loosely. I gave myself particular deadlines to be done with things, but life was too hectic for any schedule to be able to be highly binding. I kept books with me at all times. Whenever I had my computer on, I would make sure to have a PDF open, even if I didn’t look at it. That way the reading was always there, reminding me of its existence.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “I’m trying to adopt some version of the following system. It seems out of order but it’s the only way I can hold myself accountable for all the work: Pick a rough exam date. For me, this is March 2017; A month or so before this, discuss with the exam chair and committee what I’ve managed to read, where my interests fall within the material, and just have an informal conversation with these brilliant scholars about the types of questions I’d like to answer and they’d like to ask of me; Go through the list drafts and determine (with faculty assistance) what they consider the absolute must-reads for your area. The ones that everyone you meet in a conference elevator would expect you to know and chat about for an awkward 3 minutes. Read those. For instance, don’t read that super obscure eighteenth century novel that nobody talks about first and leave Clarissa or Tom Jones for the weeks immediately leading up to the exam; Figure out a handful of texts that really speak to your interests. Read those in between the absolute musts you determined above; Look at the rest of your lists and be honest about what you will actually get to, what you may or may not need to get to, and what could potentially be left on the cutting room floor. Again, your committee members can help you with this; prioritize all of this in a new list and start reading. Accept that reading will vary between hanging on every word and evaluating the introduction and conclusion of texts to pinpoint what will be useful for your exam and dissertation; Understand that things that don’t make the cut for your exam can and likely will show back up for dissertation research; Take time to read the introductions if you’re using critical editions. Familiarize yourself with how these texts have been discussed by previous scholars, the general plot, themes, what have you. You’re reading dozens and dozens of works so any help you can get from prefatory material will benefit you and your notes in the long run; . . . All of this is to say, figure out what kind of system of planning works for you that will hold you accountable to a large portion of your lists in order to demonstrate to your committee you are conversant in your chosen fields and how you have begun to think about your own project in relation to those conversations.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

 

Question: What note-taking strategies did you use while preparing for your exams?

Response 1: “I took notes for the exams in the exact same way I take notes for papers. I really didn’t change anything. This means creating a tab for the text in One Note and typing up notes and quotes as I read. I didn’t really see the point of changing a bunch of my approaches or methods for the exam, since I am used to them and they’ve worked for me so far.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I enjoy reading in many locations, especially outside. It is easiest for me to write on papers or notecards that I can tuck inside of my books and take with me. Also, notecards will not overheat in the sun! I realize that electronic documents are searchable, but as many current studies show, we remember more content when we handwrite our notes. I handwrote all of my notes, using sticky tabs for 10-20 key passages. I organized my written notes under a just a handful of keywords. Some keywords for my writing and research were “Phenomenology,” “Architecture,” or “Body.” I never had trouble finding anything while writing.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I have an elaborate note taking system! I use OneNote for all of my notes, with a page devoted to each text. I also have been using Zotero as a database, so each text is entered in there, too. As I’ve been reading and noticing patterns, I’ve been creating different hashtags that I tag within my notes as I go. For example, if I read a novel by Austen and a scholarly text by Nancy Armstrong, and they both have to do with women reading, I’d tag each OneNote entry with #WomenReading. When I’m done taking notes on a text, I then input those tags into the tag function in Zotero. My hope is that this will allow me to simply open Zotero, click a tag, and see all of the works that I’ve said have this thing in them. My system could be brilliant, or it could be totally cumbersome during the actual exams. But, I’m happy to show anyone who has questions any part of this madness!” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I used all hard copies because I am a Luddite, but my notes are digital in the end for ease of cross referencing. Any partial texts, articles, essays, and poems where I did not need to buy a whole book, I found/made into PDFs and had made into course-packs for myself at icopy in the emporium. I try to notice key themes, styles, tropes, ideas circulating, emerging and recurring in the first 25 pages or so, and develop a sort of key from that. This is sometimes informed by my secondary reading and reading of other fiction from the genre or period as well. Then as these things recur and mutate, I track them with designated letters in the margin. This includes such things as W for war, L for landscape, E for empire, or more subtly O for orientation, IO for internal/external tensions, and S for emphasizing surfaces. If there are key terms or phrases that I think may be helpful for quoting later, I just down those 2-3 words as well in margin or underline with an arrow. Once I finish the text I type these out in a word doc for each text which I can search later using “ctrl + F.” This does not take very long since it just looks like so: “E, O, IO, S, melting, 132” as I list things briefly ending in the page number. I also include a link at the top of the document to a full text version online that is searchable for later if needed and available.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “I copied quotes and major ideas into Scrivener, which is the computer program I used to keep myself organized through it all. (Evernote or OneNote would also probably work. I just happen to have Scrivener and have used it for years, so it’s comfortable for me. I also like its split-screen function, so I could have a PDF open in one screen and be typing in another.)” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: Marginalia. Marginalia. Marginalia. Post-It tabs. Slips of paper with page numbers. And corresponding hand-written notes on separate note pads corresponding to different lists or portions of lists. Technology can fail, so [I] back up [my computer] notes frequently. For some of the literary primary texts I’m less familiar with I’ve opted to quickly summarize plot, theme, and central characters for easy reference during exams. For secondary texts (or non-literary primary) I’m trying to write succinct annotations of major arguments or theories and how those relate to other texts on my lists. Really, anything that will make life easier come written exam day so I’m not frantically trying to remember which novel(s) had that male character that went on that journey, which poem had that allusion, which drama killed of a majority of characters, or which theorist(s) made that contribution to the conversation.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

Perspectives on Preparing for Comprehensive Exams: Crafting your Lists and Rationales (Part 1 of 3)

Each year in our program a new cohort of PhD students undertakes the task of beginning to craft themselves in earnest as individual scholars as they leave behind the highly structured environment of coursework for the freer yet more daunting grounds of comprehensive exam preparation. This summer, as I prepared for my own exams in the fall (fingers-crossed), I decided to interview some of my fellow PhD student community (both within and outside our own program) on how they approached the comprehensive exam process. Below you will find the result of these ‘conversations’ with students as they reflect on the process during and after its completion. We have a wealth of successful candidates here at URI, but I stuck to those for whom the process was most recent and fresh on their minds. Whether you be at the beginning of this task in forming your lists, in the throes of exam prep itself, or even a newly minted doctoral student wondering what the process will be like when it falls to you to undertake it, I hope this piece can offer a little comfort and a lot of insight and advice, if not allowing you to see exactly how the process will look for you, because as you will see it is different for everyone, then at least preventing some of the fear and paralysis that the unknown can evoke. This first installment will address student’s responses to the process of preparing your lists and rationales. Check back throughout the summer for the upcoming discussions of how people prepared for the exams and approached the exams themselves!

Question: How would you describe your process of working with your major professor and core committee to form your lists and rationales? How long would you say it took before you started reading in earnest? How many drafts would you say you went through?

Response 1: “Because my area for my rationales was a bit outside my major professor’s area, I made up an initial list on my own, just thinking about what texts I thought were important. Once she had a chance to look at that and the rationale and get a better sense of what I was thinking, we actually almost completely changed what I was doing (for the better!), incorporating more of an historical review approach. After that the lists stayed pretty much the same apart from me needing to cut a few works or decide between two different texts and polishing up my justifications. I’d say I went through about three or four major drafts of the rationale. I really enjoyed the rationale writing process. I thought it was incredibly helpful in articulating what I wanted to look at and why, and how my lists made sense.” (Kim Wickham, Post-Exam)

Response 2: “Once I understood which specific areas I wanted to research for my dissertation, I wrote my lists in accordance with my related questions and concerns. I primarily consulted with my major professor and co-chair of my committee when I was looking for additional or related texts, as well as recommended specific readings within a text. I took my exams in the early fall of 2015. I began reading very little during the previous spring. I read most of my texts beginning in late May and ending in early September, so it was roughly a four month period of intense and regimented reading. I wrote a draft of my lists during my first year, but it wasn’t very specific to my area (since I did not have one yet). After I rewrote it according to my research purposes, I think I revised it once. My committee was content with the first draft of my rationale.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I worked mostly with my major professor to form my lists, and the process was fairly smooth. I presented her with way too many sources on the first draft of my secondary sources, and we whittled away from there. She was really instrumental in helping me choose texts for my primary list since the topic I’m studying/researching isn’t something I have delved into before, and current scholarship doesn’t quite hit on it. I’ve gone through maybe four or five drafts of my lists, but with only one major overhaul to my primary list. As far as a timeline, mine got thrown off course for personal reasons, so my experience isn’t typical. When I thought I was taking my exams in February, I started really getting down to it in October.” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I think my process was gradual and dialectical. I would put something together, show it to my major, we would meet and I would be give feedback. Then I would revise, send it to my second, get feedback, revise, send it back to my major, and we would meet again for feedback. I started with just lists, then, in conversation with my committee, as they narrowed I started to think about what heuristic I was using to make the keep/remove decisions and wrote up my rationales. Further adjustments to my list were via revisions to my rationales. I met with my major 4 times and my second and outside core member once each, but got additional digital feedback from them.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “First, I met with my advisor for advice on the whole process and thoughts on the scope and shape of the reading list. Then, I hashed out very very rough drafts of each list and met with the examiners for each. Some had more to say than others. Then I did another, more final draft. Most accepted those, one sent me back for more revisions. I started reading core stuff (what we called “the unavoidables”) right away.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “While I was told time and time again my exam chair and committee would mostly dictate what appeared on the lists, this was not the case. Ultimately I compiled lists of works that felt broad enough to satisfy expectations of my areas of research while feeling specific enough to my own interests. Rather than expand the lists my exam chair helped purge superfluous entries so that things seem more manageable. She also assisted in rearranging the rest of the committee so that there are clearly defined roles rather than unchecked dynamics with the potential to over-determine the trajectory of my exams and dissertation. Though it felt daunting at the time, the entire process of researching, compiling, editing, and submitting drafts (without rationales) took roughly a month and a half.  With the drafts mostly completed, barring input from a faculty member abroad without reliable internet, it took another couple of weeks before I started reading in earnest. If I were to do it over again I would try to think in terms of the dissertation or what I imagined the subject of the diss could be given my progress in the program and reverse engineer the list with those subjects and questions in mind.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

Question: To what degree did you keep you exam prep distinct from your dissertation planning and research?

Response 1: “I didn’t? Most everything from my exam will likely in some way, shape, or form make it into my dissertation (even if it’s just a footnote). And you can’t really start dissertation planning or research until you’ve done your comps. While my overall area didn’t change, my understanding of what my diss would look like and what, specifically, I wanted to do absolutely did.” (Kim Wickham. Post-Exam)

Response 2: “I thought of all the reading for my exam as general preparation for the dissertation. As I read, I looked out for general trends in writing about architecture and fiction. This allowed me to easily and quickly contextualize my dissertation within a body of work while writing my prospectus. It also allowed me to identify how I would contribute to the discourse, what was not being said by current scholars, and how/why my perspective was needed.” (Amy Foley, Post-Exam)

Response 3: “I honestly haven’t really thought about my dissertation. The extent to which I’ve started planning for it is simply having a section of my OneNote Comps Notebook called “Diss Research” where I plop potentially useful sources. I’ve heard many people say the direction of their research changed after they took their exams: the exams helped them see things differently, or tweak their topic. With that in mind, I’m focusing on one hurdle at a time under the assumption that the exams will help me get a better idea of what I’d like to write about for the dissertation.” (Ashton Foley, Pre-Exam)

Response 4: “I was advised to think of the lists and rationales as laying out a field whose boundaries I was able to draw for myself both across and on top of existing disciplinary perimeters but which was a more general space from which my dissertation would carve out a niche to examine with specificity, rigor, and depth not possible for the whole of my exam areas. In this sense my exams would of course inform my dissertation, but not in the sense that my engagement with texts as I read should be informed by how helpful they might be in that regard, however much I might think I already know what I would like to write on. I keep a separate notebook for dissertation ideas and will scribble something in there if it strikes me to return to later. In my exam notes, I sometimes star something or put a comment in brackets if I am unsure if this is key for my exams or dissertation research. In the end I tried to read much more broadly than I would for my dissertation in terms of ground covered and to consciously ask myself to stay focused on what these texts and their most distinguished commenters and critics have said is important about them, saving any nontraditional cross examinations for the dissertation.” (Molly Hall, Pre-Exam)

Response 5: “Completely. I gave myself the freedom not to think about the dissertation while doing exam prep. I did keep notes, though, on things that would be useful for the diss. But they were just quick notes and brainstorms, nothing I ever thought much about. The exam was my task, not the diss.” (Matt Cheney, University of New Hampshire, Post-Exam)

Response 6: “In my admittedly limited understanding of the exam process, you’re examined on your general knowledge of the state of your major and minor fields, how the works you study emerged, differed from what came before, and how they do or do not relate to each other. Having a foundation in established primary texts is significant, even in, or especially in, a time when the idea of the canon is being called into question. Finding a balance between canonized and marginalized works or authors will allow you to speak to the field as it stands while beginning to insert your own expertise (derived from minor lists) into that conversation. So for me, prioritizing and balancing the canon with lesser known works and even my minor areas of study is where I begin to differentiate exams and dissertation. They should inform and build from each other to a degree while remaining distinct enough so during the exam you can speak to the established fields in terms and examples recognized by your committee without losing sight of what you imagine to be the beginnings of the dissertation.” (Michael Haselton, Duke University, Pre-Exam)

Student Spotlight: Alyssa Taft

alyssaHello there! My name is Alyssa Taft and I am a second year masters student in both the English Department and the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. I am currently working towards my MA in English and my MLIS with a concentration in School Library Media and Youth Services. In spring of 2015 I was awarded a research assistantship with the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies to work on a grant-funded project titled Media Smart Libraries, in which we develop and implement continuing education programming for school and public librarians on media and digital literacy topics. I also work part time at the URI Carothers Library in the Curriculum Materials Library where I teach URI 101, co-teach EDC 102, and provide reference services to URI’s education department.

My professional interests include media and digital literacy, contemporary fiction, genre studies, creative writing, children’s literature, library advocacy, censorship, intellectual freedom, and collection development. My time in the English department has been spent working on sharpening my creative writing and exploring intersections between literature and education, and literature and adolescence. I complete my English coursework this coming spring and next fall I will be putting together my portfolio. This will be followed by a semester of student teaching in two of Rhode Island’s public schools as a school librarian before graduation in May 2017.   

In addition to my studies, I am also the School Librarians of Rhode Island (SLRI) student board member, co-chair of the English Department’s graduate social committee, a member of the English Department’s graduate writing group, and a member of the Middletown Author’s Circle. I am involved in a number of professional organizations and committees including URI’s chapter of Student ALA, URI’s Graduate Student Conference, the Society for Children’s Writers and Illustrators, and SLRI’s advocacy committee. In Fall 2015 I was awarded the RI Coalition of Library Advocates Scholarship.  

When I’m not working or studying, I can be found reading for (gasp!) fun, playing with my rescue pup Bernie, or spending time with my husband Lee.