Posted by: Kirstyn Leuner | January 2, 2011

Comps Redux, or “True Grit”

I was inspired this morning reading Kelli’s post on what she learned this past semester. It takes meatballs to look back on a semester and register the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the payoff is hopefully a better upcoming semester! So, I dedicate this post to sharing how preparing for comps went and how I managed to pass them (with flying colors) while teaching two sections of Shakespeare for Non-Majors, nannying, exercising, eating well, and sleeping. This was just my experience, but hopefully it will help demystify the comps process for some and perhaps my mistakes will help you avoid similar blunders.

What I did well:

1. I used my summer to crank! Though I started prepping a year before the exam, the timeline didn’t hit home until the summer semester. I had little scheduled in the summer but odd jobs and a one-month teaching gig, so I decided to put a huge dent in my list. Boy, did this pay off as the exam deadline approached! I read my whole author list twice (Ann Radcliffe’s corpus and all the criticism), took copious notes, and memorized. Boom! This was a huge confidence boost that paid off in both my written and oral exams.

2. I took time to enjoy the reading. Discovering works that excited me was one of the most rewarding things about the studying process. Among these were Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, Byron’s De Monfort, Shelley’s The Cenci, and Radcliffe’s unpublished narrative poems. And rereading works that I knew I loved, like Austen’s Persuasion and Burney’s Evelina, was also wonderful. Through taking the time to enjoy the reading, I started to see the list with less fear and more enjoyment.

3. I took two sets of notes. The first set of notes for each work was long, copious, and detailed. It included notes about my interests in the work, related history and politics, and patterns that I noticed. I typed these out and each work has its own file with a naming convention [author_title]. That way, these notes are searchable for future writing projects. My second set of notes is an abbreviated set that I put together when I finished my reading list completely, in the last 3 weeks before my exam. I made just 1 file and allowed myself only 1 page of notes for each work: title, author, pub date, major characters, and 2-3 important quotes or points about the work. Sometimes I cheated and had to put these notes in 11 pt font to make them fit, but the exercise of limiting myself to one page helped me memorize the important bits for the Big Day.

4. I practiced for my oral exam with my advisor and on my own. I am lucky to have an advisor (shout-out to Jill Heydt-Stevenson) who looked forward to helping me prepare for my oral exam. We met every Wednesday night for months, Jill asked me questions about what I had read on my list, and I learned how to answer tough questions under pressure. It wasn’t always pretty, and I regularly needed a glass of wine when I got home, but the work really paid off in my oral exam and no doubt will serve me in job interviews. Thank you, Jill!

5. I prioritized my reading: primary sources first, secondaries second. This way, I knew what I thought about the primaries — and had taken notes — before I let the secondaries affect my opinions.

6. I strategically organized my teaching around my study schedule and exams. This could be a whole blog post, but in brief, I made sure that I didn’t have too much prep to do the week of my oral or written exam, and I taught texts that I had already taught at least once to minimize prep stress. I was lucky to be teaching Shakespeare for Non-majors yet again, and to have a Tues/Thurs teaching schedule, but I did have 70 students. So to save time for studying, I used a similar syllabus to one I used in a previous semester and used the same plays. It was fun to reread them, I didn’t have to learn new texts to teach, and I already had lesson plans in my files for how to teach each text. Though my teaching lacked innovation this semester, it bought me more study time.

7. I exercised frequently, got 6-7 hours of sleep every night, and ate really well. (Okay, eating well has never been a problem for me.) And when I did get sick — which for me is inevitable during such a stressful semester — I tried to relax and let my body heal as much as I could while still reading. In the past I have been too type-A to be sane about being healthy during the semester, but I’m getting better at this with age. I also limited my nannying schedule to just one day per week rather than two – though this meant a leaner budget, I appreciated those few extra hours.

8. My fellow graddies and I studied together fairly regularly, exchanged notes, and were there when I needed someone to complain to or lean on. Thanks, guys! It would have been in a lonely pressure cooker without you.

9. I felt really comfortable with every member of my committee and love working with them. Though it never sounds fun to gather a group of experts on a topic and have them quiz you for two hours in a small room, my respect for and comfort with my committee made the oral interrogation less terrifying and more productive.

10. My peers gave me a helpful mock oral. My exam was scheduled for a Wednesday morning, so the Friday prior to the exam, I invited my fellow Romanticist and 18th c. graddies over to my apartment to give me a two-hour mock exam. Of course I stocked beverages and snacks for all, but we got down to business and it was helpful to have so many different questions tossed my way and to practice having the agility to answer them all well. The mock oral exam is somewhat of a tradition among CU-Boulder grad students and I found it incredibly useful, a confidence booster that reminded me I was ready for my exam, and a great way to connect with my super-smart peeps before going into battle.

My mistakes – what I should have done differently:

1. I took too long in getting my committee to approve my list. I thought I started early enough (a semester and a half before the exam), but it took a lot of time to get all hands on deck and in agreement. The earlier you can get this done, the better.

2. I took a lot of notes by hand in notebooks; all notes should have been taken on my laptop in electronic files to save time. I moved from my laptop to notebooks because I had a hard time stopping reading, putting my book down, and then putting both hands on the keyboard to take notes. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. It was easier to keep a notebook and pen by my side and take notes in pen with one hand with the book still open in the other. Now, I did not explore tablet technology that might enable one to write on a screen and have OCR turn handwriting into digital text. But you can bet I will be looking into that for a possible birthday present! (My birthday is coming up in February … 🙂 What I did to compensate for the fact that notebooks are not searchable is I indexed them (all 3 of them) and put the index of notes on the notebook cover, so I knew what notes were in each notebook: a patch for a major note-taking problem. Then in the final weeks before the exam, I typed out these notes as a studying exercise. Not the most efficient process, but it worked out in the end.

3. I didn’t time my grading days well. My students had a final paper due late in the semester — I thought this timing would grant me time earlier in the semester to finish my list. It did, though I was unable to take the time to thoroughly grade student writing portfolios at the end of the semester as I usually would and return them promptly. I still feel guilty about this, but did the best I could under the circumstances. I did a great job teaching in the classroom while studying, but was frustrated with grading and paper feedback and all the administrative tasks that I wanted to spend lots more time on and just couldn’t afford to. Aaargh.

4. I scheduled my exam perhaps too late in the semester. I took my written exam (48 hours long, 15-20 pages) before Thanksgiving break and my oral during the last week of the semester. This left me almost no time to recover after the exam: I had a huge proposal due, essay corrections, and 70 grades to submit within the next week. I was relieved to be done with my exam, but needed a fews days to be a couch potato and just didn’t have the time to wind-down properly.

5. I was so afraid of the exam that I had a hard time starting to study at the outset. The best thing I did for my motivation was to talk to other students who passed recently and learn from their experiences, and to set the exam dates. Having the dates on my calendar and on the official English Dept. calendar inspired me to follow my study schedule to the best of my ability.

6. Reading schedule blues: My reading schedule kept slipping a little here and there due to teaching commitments and this really gave me the blues.I felt like I was constantly failing to meet my own deadlines when I was actually adjusting fairly well and always making steady progress. This was a huge challenge during the entire studying process. However, I scheduled the end-date for reading my list about a month before my exam, so a week or so of slippage was okay. I would encourage others to do the same.

7. Adamantly insist that you only have the minimum number of works on your list — it will be long enough. You have the rest of your career to read these works — you don’t have to be tested on them *right now*. Unless you’re into self-torture; in that case, list away! Use strategies like substitution to add recommended texts to your list without the number growing exponentially; just be sure that you’re substituting in a way that your committee will be okay with (or won’t notice). I tried to keep the number down to the minimum and was unable to — it would have decreased my stress a bit if I’d pulled it off. Instead, where I was asked to add works, I suggested works I’d already read that fit the criteria.

8. During my oral exam, after a professor critiqued my perception of performativity, I lost confidence in what I knew about that theory. I started second-guessing all the reading and notes I learned about that for my exam, though I continued to handle questions just fine, according to my advisor’s review of my performance. If this happens to you — if your ideas about a something that is important to you get critiqued during the oral — try to separate the critique from what you know and the knowledge you can demonstrate! This rattled me a bit and was a good learning experience.

That’s all I can think of right now. If you have questions about my comps experience, please feel free to email me or reply to this post and I’d be happy to share with you 🙂



  1. Thanks for the advise on note taking. I am in the first year of my Ma and ancountering the same difficulty.

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