Saturday, July 31, 2010

Remembering Comprehensive Exams

Last night, we went out to celebrate a friend and colleague who passed her Comprehensive Exams. It took me back to my own days of Comprehensive Exams.

I spent the summer of 1991 writing my dissertation and studying for Comps. Summers were tough for grad students. Our grad assistantships ended in May, and we cobbled together work while cutting down expenses as best we could.

My husband and I didn't use our air conditioner. It made our electric bill unaffordable. So I would get up and write in the cool of the morning, and then, as the day and the apartment heated up, I'd shift to reading and sketching out notes for Comps.

The English department at the University of South Carolina gave us a test bank. Two questions (or was it four?) would come from the 20 question test bank, and two (or four?) would be brand new. I spent the whole summer pondering the test bank questions (one bank for nineteenth century British Lit, and one for twentieth century British Lit).

I also spent the summer reading and rereading "The Waste Land." By the end of summer, I decided that my test taking strategy would be to avoid discussing "The Waste Land" in any sort of detail at all.

As I recall, the Comprehensive exams were held on a Tuesday and a Wednesday in early October. We showed up to a conference room, wearing comfortable clothes, and we sat there, writing by hand, all day. We couldn't use notes, books, or a dictionary. It was just us, our brains and our hands, and the paper.

How life has changed. My friend who passed her Comps also received questions, but she had a week to write them. She could use any resources she wanted, provided, of course, that she used proper citation and documentation. She could have other people proofread, which I did. And then, she sent them in electronically.

When I finished my written Comps, I felt fabulous about what I wrote. But I also felt terrified. I had gotten questions that were perfect for my interests and my knowledge. If I didn't pass, I couldn't imagine that I'd have circumstances that were any more favorable the next time.

And then, the waiting, the agonized waiting. I remember getting the phone call that the results were in our campus mailbox. My spouse and I headed to campus in the late afternoon of a late October day. We took the unopened envelope outside, to the back of the building, so that if the results were bad, fewer people would see me crying.

I opened the envelope--success! I whooped and hollered and my husband hugged me hard. I felt such a sense of euphoria.

A month later, I felt a similar sense of euphoria when I passed my Orals. My friend and I went to the Fresh Market (an upscale precursor to Whole Foods and that ilk), and we bought anything we wanted. Anything. We went home with gourmet coffee and gourmet chocolate and goodies from the bakery and candies and all sorts of treats.

Dissertation writing and defending was a different thing, long and drawn out with lots of revisions and the exhaustion that comes from trying to shape a piece of writing into something that all the members of the committee wanted. By the end of that process, I had gone on to my first full-time teaching job, and I didn't feel euphoria or even that sense of success, so much as I just felt relief to be done. I kept thinking about Vietnam and wars of attrition.

I was very young then, only 27 years old. I wonder if that writing process would feel different to me now, if I went through a grad program and wrote a dissertation again. I like to think that I've been through so many writing projects now that it wouldn't feel like such a drama. I like to think I wouldn't feel so persecuted. I like to think that I would get notes for revision and thoughtfully consider them as I worked to make my work stronger.

My friend who just passed her comps still has dissertation writing ahead of her. But she's got a great idea and she's already done some research. I almost envy her. But I'm also happy to have my time free to work on the writing projects that I want to do these days. I wish I had more time to do them. I look back on that last year of grad school, and I'm amazed at how much time I had, time to focus on my thoughts, whole days, several of them a week, with nothing expected than that I would be working on my dissertation. That's such a rarity these days. I'm lucky to carve out 45 minutes here, 20 minutes there. But bit by bit, the work gets done.

No comments: