We’re fortunate to have another “week in the life of a graduate student” post, this one by Masa Torbica. Each “week in the life” post has been remarkably different, and Masa’s contribution is no exception, focusing on her preparations for PhD comprehensive exams. (Perhaps some of you will recall similar exam-induced anxiety dreams?) Thank you to Masa for participating in Words In Place.
After 6 months of focused preparation (and several years of broader reading) I will be writing my primary area exam in Canadian literature next Friday morning. As my most challenging academic undertaking to date, the area exam process has been a source of great enjoyment and (mounting) anxiety. I started by reading the small forest of (100 or so) books on my list, and have accumulated several hundred pages of notes on narrative details, as well as historical, critical and theoretical contexts. More recently, I downloaded past exam questions and sorted them into twelve thematic categories, reorganizing my notes around these focal points. I now plan on spending all waking hours of the next week condensing my notes, memorizing key points, and solidifying my knowledge of the various connections between my vast range of reading material.
I have divided the review process into a day-by-day schedule. As I start today’s work, I again doubt the decision to focus on content when I know that my real obstacle is the exam format. My undergraduate exams have taught me that no matter how well I know the material, I inevitably struggle to string together my thoughts when required to write in essay format under the pressure of a time limit. I decide to delay the review and devote one more day to practicing the exam format. Four hours later, my first answer is in (rough) essay format and the other two answers are both only a paragraph long. Realizing that I spent close to an hour on my first paragraph, I feel a renewed sense of kinship with Joseph Grand, the absurdly indecisive aspiring novelist from Albert Camus’ The Plague. (Grand’s manuscript consists of 50 pages of endless variations on one sentence, and he confesses to spending “[w]hole evenings, whole weeks on one word… sometimes just a simple conjunction.”)
Immensely discouraged after yesterday’s botched practice questions, I have to accept that I won’t be able to change my entire approach to writing by Friday, and vow to stick to a single strategy. During the exam, once I select my questions I will make a detailed, point form outline of all three answers, and only once that is done will I go back and do my best to connect the points into essay format. Before taking our puppy for a walk, I bitterly remark to my partner that I should pause the PhD and return to grade 2 until I learn to write in complete sentences. However, my outlook brightens when I get back from the walk and see that he has taken the time to put up various motivational notes around my room, surrounding my desk with many of my favourite mementos.
I work all day to catch up on my scheduled review outline. By bedtime I feel utterly exhausted, but no matter how much I try to clear my mind, I can’t stop replaying the exam questions to myself over and over. At 2 in the morning I am still awake, mentally composing answers. My mind seems stuck, fixated on a single question, “in a course on twentieth-century Canadian literature, how would you give students perspectives on cultural difference?” Eventually I give in, get up, and spend an hour jotting down my answer, even sketching a preliminary syllabus. It’s past 3 am and I realize that this will set back tomorrow’s schedule, but I feel so happy thinking about teaching this hypothetical course that I realize I am grinning.
I wake up with a headache, already a few hours behind today’s schedule. Looking over last night’s exam answer I can barely decipher my own handwriting. With a sinking heart I realize that I did not recall the question accurately, as the past exam was actually asking about a course on early and nineteenth-century Canadian literature. As I sit down to compose a new answer I can’t help dwelling on the relatively slim odds that I will ever actually get to teach Canadian literature (of any period) for a living.
With the exam less than two days away, it seems that I can’t stop thinking about it, even while sleeping. Last night’s dream perfectly encapsulates my current mindset. I’m in the exam room, waiting to be given the questions so that I can begin writing. When the questions arrive, they are (inexplicably) printed on massive laminated posters, so huge that they can’t be placed on my desk but have been spread out on the exam room floor. After I wake up, I can only recall one of the questions: discuss the significance of photography in contemporary Canadian literature. The symbolism is so obvious and so heavy-handed that I have to laugh; just before bed I joked that the exam would be a lot less daunting if I had a photographic memory.
My last day of review is devoted to memorization. Drawing upon the method of loci, I have arranged my cue cards around different parts of the apartment. I slowly navigate from my desk (early explorer accounts) to the dresser (Susanna Moodie) and then to the bookcase (Confederation poets), reciting the key facts associated with each location. I must look quite funny, but I am choosing to view this as the CanLit equivalent of “the knowledge” (the examination to become a London cab driver, often called the most difficult test in the world because it necessitates memorizing every detail of the city’s 25,000 streets, including obscure businesses and landmarks).
I continue to review my notes right up to the start of the exam, frantically turning pages and muttering to myself on the bus to campus. No doubt I made a very entertaining sight to the other passengers and, later, my fellow grad students. The exam itself passes in a blur. I am thrilled at the question selection, quickly choose the ones I will be answering, and spend the next four hours typing furiously. After the exam, I celebrate by embarking on an impromptu food tour of uptown Waterloo, stopping at various establishments for fries, pizza, coffee and frozen yogurt. Drained but elated, I feel entitled to a few lame jokes, and announce to my partner that I will be switching my secondary area exam from “the history of rhetoric” to “comparative snack studies.”