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.

If You Write, You’re a Writer: An Evening of Poetry

In a small library near the Bay Campus, the poets of the URI graduate program shared their work of the last semester on Wednesday, Dec. 9. As I settled in to my child-sized chair, I was just glad that I had gotten a seat, because other attendees were left to find seating between book shelves and mill around counters. The Willet Free library was packed with both books and people and the cozy atmosphere was just right for this reading organized by Alyssa Taft and Laura Marciano, featuring the nine students of Peter Covino’s seminar this fall.

After Peter thanked all the attendees for coming, the reading got started with Alyssa Taft, who gave a short presentation. Rather than sharing poetry, Alyssa, who worked on a seminar paper for the course, introduced us to how poetry and children intersect, and in particular the benefits of poetry in education. Poetry, besides increasing reading fluency and encouraging reluctant readers, creates mindfulness in children. It gives readers silence and space in which to interpret and allows them to read into others and the world, promoting a “wide awake-ness.”

Though Alyssa was talking about the benefits for children, the eight poets who shared their work after her certainly encouraged this feeling of being awake to the world for the audience. The array of poetry was vast, even within one poet’s reading. Julie Hassett started with “Forest,” which was connected to local food banks, and ended with a poem that attempted to capture the feeling of numbness after being told her sister had died, and in between were poems written in response to art, such as “Procrastination Has Already Been Sold.” Elizabeth Folke wanted to focus on the intersection of humanity and technology, how science and invention has changed our lives. Her poems, which sometimes included a bit of a science fiction flair, asked us to probe our own lives. Others, like “Creature” which considered the situation of the burn victim who was recently the first recipient of a full-face transplant, asked us to inhabit others’. We were also asked just to listen. Francesca Borrione read two of her poems in the Italian they were originally written in, sharing the translations of more. In the Italian, I could catch a word here or there, but beautiful in both languages was her line, “I inhabited the cartography of my imagination.”

After a short break, Andrew Merecicky declared that his chapbook was entitled “Pornography of Light and Flood,” and that was “all the explanation I’m doing.” With a forceful reading voice, Andrew let the poetry linger, keeping true to his opening declaration. Susan Munson offered more context, happily as her first poem was about Bob Leuci, who once asked her “Are you a writer?” Susan used her reading style to emphasize the content of another poem “Hypervent” which was about OCD and social anxiety. Alex Trubia’s poetry included sly humor in lines such as “I’ll keep it for the sequel, something holy part II,” along with more haunting lines such as “when the winters at their frigid worst draw moisture from the timber.” Laura Marciano followed with poems that had a bitingly smart feminist viewpoint, asking the important questions like “If I sleep with myself, will I be famous?” The reading ended with Luisa Murillo, who addressed domestic violence in Bolivia in her opening poem “She Never Took Back the Night.” Luisa also included more personal poems, such as about moving to Queens from Bolivia, and poems which mixed myth with reality, putting a finishing touch on the night.

The readers also shared their experiences in the class and preparing for the reading, some at the reading and others with me afterwards. Julie Hassett gave an anecdote during her reading about wanting a heart from Alyssa on her paper during critique, apparently these hearts were a hot commodity. Alyssa saw her presentation as a “mini-conference paper” and later told me that she was glad that the audience connected to her research and understood her ideas. Susan shared that poetry has made her who she is, and that the semester was more about taking herself seriously as a poet. For her, preparing included getting ready for her “Lady Gaga moment,” as Peter calls it, by singing along to the radio on her way to the reading. Elizabeth thought about reading as a different skill than writing, and tried to consider the rhythm and inflection she would use. She shared that the class had given her space to access her creativity. Andrew, of course after the reading, told me that Peter emphasized performative reading this semester and that practice had helped him, as well as a glass of wine and some deep breaths. I think the others would agree with Andrew on this as well, “the fact that a few dozen or so people showed up to listen to poetry is always a special experience,” which this reading definitely was.

Student Spotlight: Jenna Guitar

Greetings!  My name is Jenna Guitar and I am a second year Ph.D. student in the English department.  I am also working on a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies.  As I am nearing course completion, I am actively attempting to narrow the topics of my academic interest.  However, I can broadly say that my interests lie in contemporary literature, film, television, pop culture and trans* theory. 


In the past I have presented several papers at the National PCA/ACA.  Past conference papers have been “Exploring Non-Normative Desire in Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Identity as a Fluid System in Glee,” and “TheOriginals: A Pop Culture Examination of Colonialist Discourse.”  Next year I will again be attending PCA/ACA in Seattle and presenting my paper “GenX Takes the Stage: Exploring Trans* Agency in ‘90s Musicals” a paper that grew out of Professor Mandel’s ENG 590 Special Topics course on GenX Literature and Culture.  Additionally, I have published a chapter in an edited collection: Glee and New Directions for Social Change.  My chapter was entitled “Glee Goes Gaga: Queering Concepts of High School Identity Formation.”  I am the co-chair of URI’s freshly launched Professionalization Committee along with Elyse Nelmark.  The professionalization committee has been responsible for creating and curating a Sakai site that hosts a wealth of information including but not limited to: samples of exam lists and rationales, job market materials, conferences, teaching syllabi examples, etc.  The Professionalization Committee has also held two panels, one in the spring covering how to prepare for exams and summer productivity, as well as a panel this fall concerning publishing.  Both events allowed URI faculty and graduate students to have detailed and focused conversations about the ins and outs of these important career moments.

I am also the co-chair of the URI Graduate Conference for 2016 along with Serap Hidir.  The Graduate Conference Committee is currently working hard to organize an exceptional conference for the spring of 2016.  Our theme for the conference is Trans(form): New Insights and New Directions.  I look forward to providing everyone with more information as the conference grows and develops.  Last year for the Graduate Conference I served on various sub-committees as well as presented my paper: “The Monstrous Feminine: Understanding Lady Macbeth’s Body.”  I am excited to be even more closely involved with the conference planning this year.

I received my MA in English at SUNY New Paltz where I also taught Composition for 2.5 years.  Prior to that, I have two bachelor’s degrees from New Mexico State University in Theatre Arts and English.  As a native New Mexican, my time in the ocean state has been quite a new experience, water!?  In my free time, I enjoy hiking and exploring the beauty of Rhode Island with my husband Mike and enjoying as much live theatre as we can see.  I am also the proud cat Mom of two fantastic felines, Crookshanks and Moo.


Feature: Literary Treasure Waiting To Be Discovered

Graduate students long to find a treasure of original writings that may inspire a topic for a research paper, a thesis or a publication.  I was recently blessed to experience three treasures just miles away from the University of Rhode Island: the North Kingstown Free Library, Susan Aylward, and the David Plante Collection.

The North Kingstown Free Library (NKFL) is nestled just miles away from URI and kingstown libraryprovides a beautiful, scenic location for students to study and utilize numerous resources including the David Plante Collection.  A student may easily obtain a library card and have access to the incredible collection by making an appointment with the library by calling 401-294-3306 For more information about the library, please visit their web site at

Susan Aylward is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island where she completed her Ph.D. in English and wrote her doctoral dissertation on David Plante.  Susan retired after 35 years of devoted service as a Librarian and Administrator at the North Kingstown Free Library.  Due to her friendship with David Plante, he donated a collection of his aylwardwritings and books to the library.  Susan believes that this important collection “would be of interest to scholars and students focusing their research on Rhode Island Fiction Writers, French Canadian Writers, Writers with an artistic influence, LGBT Writers and Library Science.”  She is willing to share her expertise with students interested in conducting research about this important writer.  She may be reached by email at

Susan Aylward provided personal and professional insight about David Plante’s life and writings.  She believes that David Plante, “is one of our most important contemporary American writers and has not had the critical attention he deserves.  He deals with darkness in his writings but there is hope.  His work is complicated but it deals with humanity.”  Susan shared that, “David Plante was born in Providence, Rhode Islaplantend and his writings are informed by his French-Canadian, Catholic upbringing in the working class landscape of Providence.  Seven of his fifteen novels are semi-autobiographical in nature and are largely set in and around the Providence parish where he was raised.  His writings include novels, short stories, essays, biographical profiles, memoirs, poetry, and plays.  The themes of his writings are the power of love, death, grief, longing, despair, faith, and imagination.  His life partner was Nikos Stangos, a Greek writer who influenced the artistic side of Plante’s writings.  They were known for their achievements but also for their commitment to each other as partners.”

As part of the interview with Susan Aylward, I had the honor to see the entire David Plante Collection and was completely in awe of its size and beauty.  The Collection is comprised of Part One which is housed in the South County Room at the NKFL and consisfamily plantets of his manuscripts and papers which are meticulously organized into 70 boxes containing 389 folders.  Part two is housed in the library’s Conference Room and consists of 146 books that include 21 books by David Plante, 2 books about Plante, 7 books written/edited by Nikos Stangos, 100 books from Plante’s personal library and numerous other books that influenced his writings.  Susan Aylward’s organization of this collection is literally a treasure for scholars and students.  She expressed that it is a unique opportunity for graduate students to review published materials, unpublished materials, original manuscripts,  revisions, artistic images and signed book dedications.  She passionately states, “it is an amazing and varied collection of manuscripts, notes, some correspondence and books from the shelves in his New York apartment when he was teaching in the Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia.  Some of the books he wrote, some he used to research his novels, many are signed editions from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.  As a whole, the collection represents the life of the mind of this particular writer. In parts, it is a scholar’s treasure trove.”

“You Put Down the First Draft, Then the Work Begins”: Eileen James Speaks on Poetry, Writing and Process

eileenm james“No matter what side of the desk I’m on in the classroom, poetry informs who I am,” says Eileen James, a first-year doctoral student in the Writing and Rhetoric specialization. Previously, Eileen earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Brown University and has taught composition and poetry at the Community College of Rhode Island and Johnson and Wales University for five years. Her current (and evolving) research interests investigate rhetoric of privilege and power as well as writing assessment. Eileen will be a workshop leader at the URI Ocean State Writers’ Conference for a young writers session titled “Mini-zines” from 4:45 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 20th. She is a native Rhode Islander who lives in Exeter with her husband, Ken, and her twin daughters Waverly and Olivia. This blog post includes Eileen’s poem, “Nightmares”, which was published in Monsters and the Monstrous Journal: In The Blood – Winter of  2014/15. In the following Q&A, Eileen discusses her writing process and how creative writing informs her interests in the field of Rhetoric and Composition.

for Waverly and Olivia

 Listen, dear hearts:
Children disappear sometimes, slip out of their parents’ grip.
Down wells or away with strangers.
Trolls wait on enchanted stumps for little ones to play
out of the sight of love-struck grown ups bound in devotion.
The clouds in the sky can turn soft familiar shapes
into cold wicked figures.
The apologetic mother wonders if her doting hands weren’t quick enough.

And now, inhale this bedtime tale of mother-love:
Ghosts only exist in my dreams.  See, my eyes could not focus wide awake
on quick breaths that sway dead memories through the windy curtains.
The moon is always just a few hours away. I worry about the locks on doors.

 My children, I will cloak you under my bosom. Witches crunch tiny femurs
between awesome teeth.
The wolves will find you. Don’t be fooled by the house of gingerbread
piped with sweet white icing. Woodland greens seem so unsuspecting.


Clarissa: Tell us the story behind your poem, “Nightmares”?
Eileen: I think I wanted an admonition to my daughters: Be careful in the world. I thought about fairy tales. I was taking the books that they don’t read anymore off the shelves and some of them were the Grimm fairy tales and they are grim. The process of writing had a lot to do with images. I could see what was happening in my head and I wanted others to be able to see this vision in the poem. There was a lot of revision, considerations of language and deciding if there would be characters in the poem. If there were characters, who they would be and who would see them and how. I think that by the end, the way that I structured it was the way people talk to their children when they are tucking them into bed. But, there wasn’t a happy ending to the fairy tale.
Clarissa: Interesting. Why do you think you chose that ending?
Eileen: I hoped for an understanding of the crazy nightmarish world that someone could live in. Instead of a happy ending, they could leave with more knowledge than they started with.
Clarissa: You have been selected to run a creative writing workshop at the URI Ocean State Writers’ Conference this summer. Congratulations. Would you speak more about your creative writing pedagogy, in general?
Eileen: Right now, for me writing creatively is a luxury. I don’t have deadlines for it. In some ways, I don’t do it as often as I like to do because of other kinds of deadlines.

I feel that when you work with others and help them with their writing, the job is to provide helpful boundaries for people to flourish inside of. It’s important to help people find their voice. Working with language is fun. Wordsmithing is fun and can be exciting. Having a desired end and trying to get there is one of the most satisfying parts of writing. The actual construction of the poem and the revision is the most exciting part of writing to me. That’s what the work is. That’s what I like to stress when I work, especially with young writers: No one writes the first draft and expects it to be done. You put down the first draft, then the work begins.

Clarissa: You are currently a first-year graduate student earning a doctoral degree in the Writing and Rhetoric specialization. How does Eileen the Poet inform your current coursework?

Eileen: I am interested in ways that people navigate language. I know how I do it creatively, so I am interested in how other people in the world navigate language and use language. I am an advocate of the power of words. I think that what has drawn me to this field is that rhetoric is about what language can do, hopefully good things. The influence and power that language can wield in the world. Perhaps I have a Burkean optimism that the world can be a better place if we consider the words that we use.

Publishing on Pop Culture: An Interview with Jenna Guitar

JGuitarHeadshotWe are excited to announce that our own Jenna Guitar, a first-year PhD student, has recently published a chapter in Glee and New Directions for Social Change. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and the publishing process. Congratulations!

Guitar, Jenna. 2015. “Glee Goes Gaga.” In Glee and New Directions for Social Change Ed. Brian C Johnson and Daniel K. Faill. Boston: Sense Publishers. 61-68.

Q: First, can you give us a brief synopsis of your chapter? A sentence or two take-away if you will.

A: My paper is occupied with examining the ways theatrical performance can help high school students understand Butler’s theory of fluid identity. The paper focuses on a specific season one moment in the television show Glee. The students are asked to “go Gaga” as they perform various Lady Gaga songs to tap into their theatrical identities. By tapping into these theatrical personas, the students learn that their identities are fluid and not stagnant. Essentially they perform Butler’s seminal argument concerning identity in the episode, which I found to be fascinating.

Q: I’d like to ask a bit about the process involved in getting this published. Was this a term paper that you found a call for, or did you find a call for chapters and decide to write this?

A: This was originally a seminar paper from a Queer Theory course I took at New Mexico State University. I later presented the paper at the National PCA/ACA in Washington DC, while I was working on my Master’s degree at SUNY New Paltz. From that conference I was approached by the editors of the book who were interested in including my essay in their collection Glee and New Directions for Social Change. The book was just recently published in January. All in all, this was a five year process from writing it to actually getting it published.

Q: How was the peer review process? Was it nerve wracking? Did you get constructive feedback?

A: My editors were very kind. They offered some minor tweaks and revisions, but the most labor intensive changes stemmed from having to change everything from MLA to APA. The book is interdisciplinary and the two editors kept going back and forth about how the book should be formatted and finally determined it should be in APA. So, it was a bit tedious changing everything to the new format, especially because I was not very familiar with how APA worked.

Q: Did you find anything about working with pop culture particularly challenging, or liberating?

A: I often work with popular culture, so I really felt in my element. I feel most comfortable in the pop culture arena and am always really excited when I get to do a project along those lines.

Q: Do you want to work on Glee in the future? Is the high school experience something you are interested in, or was the chance to talk about gender performativity the greater draw?

A: I’m not sure if I would work with the television show Glee again. I wouldn’t be opposed, but I don’t have any plans as of yet. However, I am fascinated by representations of high school students in television and would definitely like to continue research in that area at some point. Gender studies is one of my main research interests and generally the lens I adopt in my work, so that was definitely a draw.