Have a Wonderful Break!

As everyone is rushing to get that grading done and those papers written, we at the blog wanted to take a moment and thank everyone for such a wonderful semester! All of your contributions help to make the Graduate English Blog a success and we couldn’t do it without you.

We’ll be taking a short hiatus during the break, but we’ll be back in January with some truly great posts. From an interview with our new Department Chair, to a write-up of students reading their original material, check back in to see all of the exciting things happening in our department and all of the amazing things our graduate students are involved in.

Drink some cocoa, play in the snow, spend time with friends and family, and have a wonderful break!

URI English Department Receives Prestigious NEH Grant

The URI English Department is thrilled to announce that we have been honored with a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant, part of NEH’s “Next Generation PhD” initiative, is designed to fund planning for the innovation of humanities PhD programs. URI joins 27 other universities nationwide who received planning and implementation funding, with the goal of better preparing graduate students for today’s competitive array of Humanities career options, both in and outside of academia. As Marcus Cederström has recently urged in an article for Inside Higher Ed, “What’s missing in many humanities graduate programs is the framework that will help us translate the skills we develop, the guidance to do so and the support to pursue employment outside of academe. That has to change. And fast.” This is precisely the exciting opportunity URI’s English Department, University administrators, and both current and future PhD students have in front of them.

Dr. Kathleen Davis describes the grant as “[securing] partnerships, internships, new collaborations, and innovative curricular changes that will prepare our doctoral students to expand their career aspirations and to bring the fruits of Humanities learning to all aspects of civic life.” One of the central objectives of the NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative is to increase cross-disciplinary communication and learning opportunities for doctoral students in five key areas: Coastal Environment, Health & Medicine, Publishing/Editing, Digital Humanities & Big Data, and Cultural Organizations. There are over 40 faculty, administrators, and students working on the grant from at least 10 disciplines (which readers can see here: http://web.uri.edu/nextgenphd/). Generally speaking, then, the task of the NEH committee is to ask two vitally important questions: “Where are the Humanities now?” and “Where are Humanities PhD programs going?” These have been critical questions for the Humanities for decades now, as the death knell for the Humanities has continued to be rung periodically, amidst what seems to be an increasingly Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM)—and digitally-focused world.

News stories about how the skills of Humanities undergraduate majors and doctoral students align with demands of the current job market have begun to appear. As recently as October 2016, Scientific American published an editorial staff-authored essay encouragingly entitled, “STEM is Vital—but Not at the Expense of the Humanities.” In our current moment, we may despair over the corporatization of the university, which seems increasingly designed to prepare students for jobs rather than encourage prolonged critical reflection about oneself or the world. Prominent politicians have not helped: “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the tax payer,” said governor of Kentucky Matt Bevin), while former Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio declared we need “more welders and less philosophers.” Scientific American supplies a helpful response to such reductive talk:


If . . . advocates of a STEM-only curriculum look more closely, they will find that the student who graduates after four years of pursuing physics plus poetry may, in fact, be just the kind of job candidate sought out by employers. In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate’s specific major.


Contrary to what some parents, students, and politicians may think, the difference between STEM and the Humanities is not “useful v. useless.” As the editors of Scientific American show, a Humanities education offers students the opportunity to acquire skills that are not distancing them from current career demands, but are closing the gap as such skills become more and more necessary in a global business market demanding complex, precise communication between international business communities and divergent cultures.


If it is obvious, however, to the editors of Scientific American that the Humanities offers something necessary and, at times, intangible to the success of STEM fields (the “artistic sensibility” of Steve Jobs is the oft-cited example as the captain of industry who knew nothing of the nitty gritty of coding or computer engineering, yet still managed to change an entire technological field), it is still the case that many—like politicians in charge of state education budgets—need convincing of that basic premise. The Scientific American article performs for us, then, a double duty: it shows the value of the Humanities from the perspective of experts and active members in the STEM community (we see the skills that Humanities graduates bring to fields outside of the Humanities). The article also highlights, however, a gap in general understanding about the “usefulness,” importance, and value of Humanities programs and graduates. Recalling our attention to what Cederström writes above, the issue suggests itself as one of “translation.” How can the Humanities translate what we do to outsiders? How can the disciplines of the Humanities ally themselves to STEM disciplines in an effort to make this translation easier? How can we better prepare Humanities graduates to translate their skills more easily to jobs outside of the academy, and show that the depth of our theoretical training asks critical questions? This, perhaps most vitally, is the area where URI and the “Next Generation Humanities PhD” initiative is poised to intervene. With the support of the NEH and the University, we can enlarge the import of the Humanities, endeavor to create a stronger coalition of Humanities and other departments, and look eagerly to a future of the “new” and the “next,” one for which our current and prospective students will be fully prepared to take part in and, ultimately, to shape.


If you—readers—are interested in helping to bring to fruition some of the ideas put forth here (and some of the ideas put forth in planning meetings) please contact Kathleen Davis and/ or sign up for Kathleen Davis’s course next semester on the Public Humanities.


Of Mood: A Talk by Mary Cappello

cappelloIf mood is something that is induced from the outside, then the performance on November 1st by author and Professor Mary Cappello of the English department and pianist Kirsten Volness, called the audience to participate in an event that could alter and influence mood.

The performance was not in the Hoffman Room of Swan Hall where we typically gather for the Read/Write series events, rather it was held in the Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. And so the very space of the occasion was responsible for creating mood.  As the audience entered, we were met with hues of violet and indigo and a soundscape of speech accompanied by a musical loop: “eyes remove themselves from your body…  and [become] a masterpiece, a work of art…” From the start, this performance rendered an overlapping of thought and mood and posited the necessary connection between our senses and our moods.

Reading from her latest book, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack), Professor Cappello gave the audience the opportunity to wonder where mood resides, and to sit with the idea that mood is both of and outside the body.

Professor Cappello brings to her students and the audience and readers of her work, an examination of and reflection on those elements in our lives that we often ignore, that we do not allow ourselves the time to pause and think about. Here we are called by the author to consider mood. This may seem a contradictory exercise, to use our minds to interpret what we feel when mood may be more visceral. For this reason a reading itself is not enough. The multimodal elements of the event created a space for listeners not merely to use their minds to think about what was being read, but color and images and sound, invited us to enter a mood—what Professor Cappello might have in mind when she refers to a mood room.



Words are one medium Professor Cappello uses to create mood. Words transmit to the audience Cappello’s childhood memories. Her mother’s words and sounds constitute a sonorous envelope—a term coined by Édith Lecourt, which Cappello builds off of, “a common zone…. created by the mother’s voice, which, though originally affiliated with contact, ‘will subsequently exist on its own, without the body contact that accompanies it’ ” (305).  These sounds surround us in our formative year and may continue to reside both in our memories and somewhere outside our bodies throughout our lives.  Words are also the tools of thinkers and writers such as Roland Barthes and William Gass that inform Cappello’s reflections on mood. Thus through the blending of all of these voices, we are left with the recognition that words are a fusion of sound and thought carrying with them the both meaning and mood.

The performance also included the work of Berlin based trumpeter and composer Paul Brody’s sound instillation, “Talking Melodies.” The piece overlays music with recordings from interviews Brody conducted, turning speech into something melodic and musical.  Words and tune combine again invoking thought and emotion to induce mood.

A little over a week after the performance, I am also left thinking of the ethereal nature of mood. By projecting images of clouds behind her as she read, Professor Cappello used these stunning visuals as a metaphor for the transitory and ethereal nature of mood. Clouds shape shift as we gaze at them, the air currents sculpting their form before our eyes. They change color when the angle of light changes.

We are invited into Professor Cappello’s mind by the words she shares with us to describe the studious mood.  We might assume such a mood is fixed. In one of the chapters from which she read, “In a Studious Mood,” we follow her from the initial proclamations of what mood is not, “It doesn’t begin: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this sun of York,’ ” to the study of anatomy books furnished with intricate descriptions of the ear and precise scientific language. We are taken into Cappello’s study, designed to let in more light, imagining this will help in creating the studious mood, influenced as much by the outer as it is by interiority. But in this studying, this dismantling and excavating of ideas that Professor Cappello leads us through, as listeners it is possible that we do not remain in the studious mood. The reading closed with her reflections on three sounds made by her partner Jean: footsteps the “ ‘puh’ ” sound of a wooden door stuck to its frame,” and the laying of keys on a table. And though as she reads, it might be that like Cappello, it is our inhabitation of a studios mood that allows us to stumble upon unknown mysteries—including those related to the people we love—as a listener, hearing this recounting of sounds made by a loved one, I was transported from my own attempt to soak in ideas, to think in new ways, and be engaged in studious reflection, to a mood more akin to wonderment and reverence.  Which may indeed be essential to the studious mood. And so the cloud of mood continues to dance in the currents.

The evening’s performance ended with wordless sound—the music of Kirsten Volness. The audience entered into a space where the music, which lies outside of the body, travels to the body through the ear. We are reminded that our body functions as a type of interpreter. And as the evening’s presentation came to a close, Kirsten Volness’s piano composition with notes ethereal and rooted tones, provided a space in which to give ourselves up to mood—reflective, invigorating, studious, serene.

Constructing the Conference Paper: Hosting a Special Session at SCLA

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting for the Society of Comparative Literature and the Arts. In addition to chairing a panel and participating in the requisite conference mingling (I didn’t present a paper this year), I was also invited to host a special workshop.

conference-1SCLA is a wonderful organization I’ve been involved with for quite some time and the annual conference is one of the most low-key and supportive conferences I’ve attended. As such, it attracts a good number of graduate students, and even some undergrads—one year we even had an entire undergrad panel. Because of this, for many this is one of their first, if not their first, conference. What many of us who have been conferencing for a while, and feel comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, forget is that the conference paper—taking it from term paper, to conference paper, to presentation—is a unique and sometimes strange genre. The workshop, Crafting the Conference Paper, was set up to take new or inexperienced conference presenters and walk them through the steps one takes to make a conference paper successful. (Or to simply remind veteran presenters of the fundamentals J )

I was very excited about this idea, as it is often something that is left unaddressed—one simply writes a paper, sends in an abstract, gets accepted, cuts the paper down to length, then reads it in front of a group of people, right? And yet, those of us who have been to conferences can attest to how often the conference paper goes wrong. This workshop was an attempt to lay out explicitly how one takes a written paper, to a conference paper, to a presentation.

The first part of the workshop focused on editing the written document. I know I myself conference-2have been guilty of taking a paper I’ve written, cutting it down to 12 pages, and saying “Done! Ready for the conference!” and putting this presentation together was a great reminder as to why that is the wrong way to go. The way we write papers does not often translate smoothly into a swepoken presentation. Because your audience is listening and not reading, organization, signposting, and transitions are absolutely critical. We went over how even strategies that might seem overly simplistic in written work, are actually very successful in a presentation. Things like “I argue,” “there are three main points I’ll be covering,” “my first example is” are useful for listeners to more clearly follow what you are arguing. We also discussed that it is important to think about how one integrates quotes. In a written work, they are, of course, indicated by quotation marks. But when you read your paper, you need to think about what you’re going to do with those. If the paper is quote heavy, saying “quote/end quote” over and over can become distracting and tedious for the listening. We talked about a number of other editing issues, then moved on to the presentation itself.

While many of the presentation suggestions seem like common sense—sit up straight, project, make eye contact—we sometimes forget these simple strategies. Also, the conference paper has added components. Where are you going to hold your paper? Will
you lay it on the table? What does that do to your posture? Will you read it on a computer or laptop? How will you navigate the pages?

The discussion session was lively, with people asking questions, sharing their own strategies, or anecdotes where they were in the audience during a presentation that went
conference-3wrong so we could brainstorm how to avoid similar mistakes. The handout was a topic of great interest. Most people noted that they had rarely encountered a handout that actually added something valuable to the presentation, more often they seemed to simply distract the listener, giving them something to read while the presenter was speaking. Extemporizing was also something several people wanted to examine. How and when to speak extemporaneously? How can you insert “planned” extemporaneous sections to make your presentation connect more with the audience without rambling and eating up your time?

Overall, this workshop was extremely rewarding and, even though I was leading it and planned our topics of discussion, it was a great reminder to me to not get lazy with my presentations, and to conscientiously approach every conference paper with my audience clearly in mind. The turnout also exceeded my expectations, and everyone was engaged and ready to discuss and do work. I think this indicates that there is a real interest in special sessions like these, where graduate students can gather and hone their craft in an informal and welcoming environment.

More info on SCLA can be found here: http://complit-scla.org/

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

Homecoming: Using the Humanities to Discuss Veteran Experiences

In the front of the room sits a panel of four veterans, all prepared to talk about their unique experiences with homecoming. The event, supported by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, is a unique opportunity for both the veterans and audience to engage with literature, film, and historical writings as a way to situate and relate their own experiences. The event opens with an introduction from Prof. Widell of the History Department. He talked about the importance of humanities texts in interrogating the language of homecoming and stressed that what people often forget in history is that it is not only veteran-1about telling stories, but about listening. The panel of veterans was asked to read and watch several different texts selected by the event organizers. For this particular panel, focusing on texts dealing with World War I, Prof. Widell selected works from WEB du Bois, Allen Berube, Ira Katznelson, and Donnie Williams. Tom Conroy from Film and Media asked the panelists to watch The Best Years of Our Lives and read a companion piece to the film. Molly Hall from English chose works by Mary Borden, James Europe, and JD Salinger.

After a brief introduction from each member of the committee outlining the specific works they chose for the panel, Prof. Widell opened the floor to the panelists, asking them to first identify themselves and give a short biography. Chad McFarlane spent five years in the Army as a tanker, eventually earning the rank of Sargeant. He is currently a senior at URI. Michael Steiner, also a senior at URI, joined the Navy and worked as a Radar Tech, serving through three deployments in the Persian Gulf and one in the western Pacific. Denny Cosmo was already in infantry school when the twin towers were hit in NYC. He served with the 325th Infantry Airborne division as an intelligence collector in Iraq. He is currently attending CCRI. Finally, Ashley Aldarondo-Martinez spent four years in the Army as a Human Resource Specialist and currently works for the Department of Veteran Affairs.

After their introductions, the panelists were asked to respond generally to the materials veteran-2they had read and seen. “Blind,” a selection from Mary Borden, seemed to touch many of the panelists for the ways in which Borden deployed blindness as a metaphor. In the excerpt, the panelists noticed that soldiers seemed blind to the other men lying on cots right next to them, the nurses had to in many ways be blind to the suffering they saw, and those that welcomed the soldiers back seemed blind to their experience. Du Bois was also popular for the ways in which he encouraged black soldiers to dedicate themselves to the war effort in order to gain more rights back home in America. Building on this reading, Chad recalled a moment when, after returning from basic training he entered a dry cleaning store. Initially, he received a less than warm welcome, but when he pulled his uniform out the clerk’s eyes lit up and his whole demeanor changed. It seems that the uniform acted as an equalizer. Each panelist agreed that The Best Years of Our Lives captured the ambivalence of homecoming. While none believed that their time in the service were “the best years of their lives,” they identified with the strong sense ofcomradery the men felt in the film that was in some ways lacking upon their return.

The question and answer session was also very lively with a lot of audience participation. One of the best questions of the afternoon concerned what each of the panelists would recommend as “improvements” or modifications to the current process of discharge and reintegration. Panelists mentioned a greater focus on entrepreneurship and putting veterans’ unique skills to use in starting their own businesses, a better explanation and guidance in maximizing the GI Bill and specific skills to succeed in college, and a focus on asking veterans where they wanted to fit into society and what they wanted to be doing instead of attempting to take skills learned in the service and translate them directly into a job.

The session was brought to a close when a gentleman in the audience, a veteran himself, thanked all of the panelists for not only their service but their willingness to partici
pate in this forum. His sincerity was echoed by, I think, everyone in the audience and underscored veteran-3the importance of opening up spaces in which people have the chance to truly listen to others’ experiences. The next session focuses on texts centered on the Vietnam War and is being hosted by the Providence Public Library on Oct. 16 at 2pm. More information, as well as links to the  works the veteran panel will be reading can be found here: http://rivetsspeak.weebly.com/



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)

Welcome Back!

Happy first day of the Fall semester! Hopefully everyone’s summer was both relaxing and productive and everyone is ready to start getting back into the full swing of things. There were many exciting things that happened while we were away, so a few congratulations are in order.

Spearheaded by Prof. Kathleen Davis, our department was awarded the NEH challenge grant to work on broadening employment opportunities for humanities PhDs. Congrats to everyone involved! In addition, Molly Hall was awarded one of the first fellowships, the Coastal Institute Graduate Fellowship.

We welcome Prof. Travis Williams as our new Department Chair and Prof. David Faflik as our new Director of Graduate studies.

One of the first events of the new semester is this Sunday, 09/11. The event, Memory V. Representation: Soldier’s Homecoming in History, Literature, and Testimony, is sponsored by URI and The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and will bring together scholars and veterans to talk about the homecoming experience. The symposium this Sunday is just the first of three panel discussions concerning veterans and homecoming. This event will be held in Doody Auditorium from 2:00-3:30pm. More information can be found here: http://rivetsspeak.weebly.com/

The blog will be kicking off the new semester with a wonderful three-part series of interviews conducted by Molly Hall. In it she asks students from multiple schools about the comprehensive exam and rationale writing process. It is filled with some great insights and a slew of different approaches to studying, note-taking, writing the exams, and preparing for orals. Don’t forget to check it out!

As always, thanks to everyone who continues to make the blog work by contributing all of our wonderful write-ups, spotlights, and interviews.