Sunday, August 16, 2009

Comprehensive Exam = 4000 years of Literary Progress Summed Up in A 4 Hour Test

I said yesterday that I'm not going to use this blog as a place to investigate in depth the various readings that make up my comprehensive exams (even though I kind of did that with Biographia Literaria anyway). It's really a pity, to be honest. In my reading today alone, I think I've just had a breakthrough in what the writer is getting at, and I'd love to talk it out. Ideally, this would be a perfect forum for such a discussion. (And yes, I do think me talking and you audience rarely ever responding still constitutes a discussion. David Antin defines his talk poems as conversations in the same way, if you want, the option to reply is there.) And what I'd gain by organizing my thoughts and presenting them in some legible form would probably be at least as much of an educational boost for me as for everyone else. In the most bright-eyed, optomistic view, this is what the internet is for: the exchange of ideas.

But I also recognize that it's not a good idea, for a reason similar to the reason why I don't use my real name on the blog, and the reason why I generally don't provide stories directly involving my family and friends--there's a limit to what I can talk about and still preserve my responsibilities. I have no right to tell stories that aren't mine to tell . Similarly, I have a responsiblity not to flash the University of Blank's English comprehensive exam's reading list on the Net. Further, I have an intellectual responsibility to myself and my future career not to blurt out all my research and thought in a public forum, where it can't be protected. Some day, the copyright and intellectual property right laws may be more settled in this area, but for now... Well, I have no illusion that my real identity would be hidden from anyone who put some effort into finding it, and virtually all my readers know it anyway, but the pretense towards anonymity is important, if for no other reason that it's a reaction to my own sense that I'm being foolhardedly indiscrete.

Of course, there's people who have added their bosses on Facebook, so I've still got a ways to fall yet.

But all that's beside the point. Today's topic: even if I can't discuss the specifics of the comp, I thought it was about time that I explained what it was, since I'll be obliquely complaining about it for most of the next year or so. It's typical for a graduate student, especially a doctoral candidate, to go through a comprehensive exam that ensures he or she has a fundamental grasp of the discipline. This exam usually takes place after the course work has been completed, but before the actual dissertation work begins. In my particular department, the student chooses tw exams from two of the disciplinary categories to focus on, one based in literature, one in rhetoric.

One of these is declared the "primary," and is hopefully related to the eventual dissertation topic, and the other is declared the "secondary." You can do your secondary and primary exam in either order (the first will be done in the last week of November, the second in the last week of... May, I think.). Both have a type-written component that consists of a 4 hour exam. You choose from sets of questions which you want to answer in the time limit provided, using the readings from your category as you see fit. The difference between the primary and the secondary is that the written primary exam is followed up a week or two later by an oral exam, in which a selection of the department specializing in that area quizzes you on the subject.

I've chosen to to do the secondary first, and the primary in the spring. I won't say what categories I picked, but given my recent posts, you can probably figure it out. For the moment, I've been operating on a systematic approach to my reading list: I read everything that's on it, sequentially. Further, I take extensive notes; following the method used in the long-concluded spatial theory course, I take about a quotation per page, and occasionally jot down some note on why it was significant. It's a very comprehensive method, so it works well with the overall endeavour, but it's slower than a snail race through a road of molasses. I'm probably going to have to shift to something more expedient as November nears. I've been averaging about one reading a day, or, bare minimum, 50 pages if the work is particularly dense.

So that's the process, and that's my method. And now, no doubt, I'll never have to mention comprehensive exams ever, ever again.

Later Days.

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