I haven’t posted anything here in over a year. Not because I haven’t been working hard but because I have been writing my comprehensive exams. For those of you who don’t know, these exams (referred to usually as “comps”) are a PhD milestone in which you spend a year reading on a certain topic and stop in November to write one exam, and then in May you write another. Now these exams vary greatly from school to school. Some schools your supervisor drafts a list of things relevant to your dissertation, others you draft a list of things relevant to your dissertation, and at some schools you pick two reading lists from a variety of specialized areas. At Waterloo you pick two reading lists from a selection of 13 and from there you decide which will be your secondary list and which your primary. Your primary exam involves both a written 4 hour exam and an oral defense of that exam, your secondary is just the written test.
Now I won’t say there was no value in this experience because I got a lot out of the reading. I read a LOT of interesting things in the past year. Like with course work, my horizons have been expanded and I got thinking about tons of stuff I had never previously considered. My secondary exam was in Canadian literature and I read a bunch of amazing books and learned a lot about our country’s (more interesting then you would think) history. For the Canadian exam I even got to make a B-list entirely focusing on Canadian comics! I really enjoyed thinking about how Canadian comics fit into the sphere of “Canadian literature” and would love more than anything to write an article examining Canadian comics using Canadian literary theory! But instead I read all these things, studied like crazy, wrote a 4 hour exam, and then just walked away from it.
For my primary exam I was looking at New Media Studies, which was in some ways closer to my dissertation, in some ways further away. In the New Media exam you can pick two (out of a possible eight) areas of expertise to narrow down the larger list which is very important. My exam was made up of a list of core classic texts (Benjamin, Barthes, Haraway, Hayles, Donald Norman, McLuhan etc.) and then two specialized lists, one looking at important writing on social media, the other one looking at important writing on game studies. I wasn’t looking at anything to do with comics, but the exam gave me a lot of fantastic background on the digital humanities as well as providing me with the language to think about how my project is a DH project.
I read countless fascinating things that restructured the ways I think about some of my favourite topics; bodies, publics, feminism, gender, race, sexuality, fandom, narrative, social media, pornography and of course: video games. I spent a lot of it reading and thinking about video games. In fact for my exam I actually had to play two video games of my chair’s choice. For each of your specialized list you have an additional list of texts that is specialized to THAT list as well as to a few object texts. This is where things get realllllyyyy fun (but also complicated to explain). My specialized games list (on top of the core games list) looked entirely at intersectional identity and gaming (Gender! Race! Class! Mobility! Sexuality! Etc. all the most interesting things) and my social media list looked specifically at sexuality and social media (how is our sexuality mediated, oppressed or liberated through our technology?). I fucking loved this part of the exam. It was my opportunity to not only look at topics that I thought were important but also a challenge to use my favourite classic DH texts to discuss these topics. I.e. What would Barthes think about Snap Chat? How could we rewrite Benjamin’s texts to fit our current “age”? How are women becoming Haraway-esque feminist cyborgs through the distribution of their bodies online? For my games list looking at identity I got assigned Beyond Two Souls and Gone Home as my object texts. When it came to writing the exam I was literally talking about Tinder, Snap Chat, Gone Home and Beyond Two Souls in relation to the theory the entire time. It was fantastic. I was like a pig in shit.
So the point of that long introduction is that comps are not ALL bad. There are parts of them that are incredibly enjoyable. But for someone like me they were also something else. For myself it feels like some sort of stopgap in your education. I had built up so much motivation and more importantly momentum over the years to study, and to write, to collaborate and produce and suddenly it was like I had run head on into a brick wall at full force. The past year has been like groping along that brick wall trying to find my way back to myself. When I first finished course work and started my comps I was LOST. All I could think about were all the projects I wanted to be working on, all the articles I wanted to write, I was making documentary plans with my film maker cousin, writing scripts for comics, thinking about my next poetry project, writing dissertation outlines, I had just finished making a feminist machinima fan vid about Lord of the Rings and was co-founding an organization for lady gamers in the KW area. I was applying for conferences all over the place, I was finishing book chapters, I was writing book proposals, and I felt like I was on fireeeeee. Then the wall. It was LITERALLY a wall of Canadian novels but metaphorically it was the milestone. I would meet with my supervisor with an outpouring of ideas, and she would attempt to rein me in as best as she could while still remaining encouraging in all my projects. I knew I couldn’t read the whole list and also do the things I wanted to do. I felt like opportunities were passing me by. It forced me to really consider for the first time, just how badly I wanted to do the PhD. Was I okay putting everything on hold for a year in order to properly prepare for my exams?
At first dealing with the brick wall was a bit like I was navigating through a labyrinth trying to get to the center. It was like David Bowie has stolen my dissertation and if I could just persevere I would get to the Goblin City and nab that baby back. I would grope along the brick wall until I found a new path, something that made a connection with me, and I would follow it to a dead end. Sometimes I would fall into a dark bottomless pit of settler narratives for days only to find a way out by grabbing onto the nearest collection of long poems and pulling myself out. One day I would be sobbing into a Margret Lawrence novel and the next I would be reading frantically online about the Canadian Pacific Railway in order to understand the Red River Rebellion better. The next I would be redevouring and drawing hearts all over the Seed Catalogue only to find myself unsure of how I would ever make it work for me on the actual exam.
When it came down to it there was just a point in the fall of my second year where I stopped writing. I was writing notes, sure. I was writing practice exams and pretend essays but I wasn’t REALLY writing. It’s like I was performing the act without any of the heart behind it. Not because I don’t love Canadian Literature but because comps just sucked the life out of me until I no longer felt like Jennifer Connolly solving the mysteries of the labyrinth and more like Hoggle blasting fairies dead (there is something really satisfying about crossing a book of that list) and pissing into the fountain unsure what the hell to do with myself other than obey orders.
The exam format produces so much anxiety you can never feel prepared no matter how much you have read. I would try to do simple things like go out for dinner with friends only to walk home panicking and wishing I had never left the house because of the overwhelming fear that loomed along with the exams date. I always knew exactly how many days were left until the exam. I was already panicking when there were 100 days left.
Now I know how this seems in theory, “OH you had to just teach and READ for an entire year? Your whole job other than teaching was just to sit on your ass and READ and you are complaining?” or “It’s probably just you tons of people have done it before you”. I probably sound like an ungrateful privileged jerk and I know that I’m only here because I chose to be here and I feel very very very privileged to have made my way to this position where I am paid to do what I love, but bear with me while I indulge myself. The thing is that it’s not so much the reading as it is that you are reading in isolation and without purpose. Sure I kept some notes and ideas for when I finally ripped my dissertation back out of Bowie’s sexy sexy hands but that REALLY isn’t the same as writing. I’m in grad school because I love to write, reading is part of the writing process. Reading can also be for pleasure, but in this case a pleasure reading won’t prepare you for an exam. It was hard for me to know how to prepare when I felt that an exam – A TEST – is no way to measure if I have grasped the ungraspable tenants of Canadian postmodern thought, or if I can teach a course about the digital humanities. I would have been delighted to have written an article or a literature review relaying what I had learned from consuming the respective cannons, but reading hundreds of books in preparation to hash it all out in 4 hours meant that I stopped writing, and in a way I stopped caring in that useful motivating way I had before. I had lost all my momentum. I stopped groping along the brick wall for an escape route and instead just bricked myself in and everything else out. I’m an incredible social person, and I still saw people and did things, but I felt isolated in some other more insidious way that I couldn’t quite articulate. Maybe a type of intellectual isolation? If you are at all already susceptible to depressive states as many grad students tend to be, comps seems a bit more like a nail in a coffin than a hurdle for you to jump over. It’s hard not to get depressed when you are looking at a list of books that is unreadable everyday. You will feel like you can’t finish, or if you do like you didn’t learn enough. You can go to those around you for help all you want but when it comes down to it you have two options, drop out of your PhD or just keep reading and hope to god you pass. I walked into both exams with the full expectation that I would fail them.
I was insanely prepared, preparing was my life for 4 months, but it never felt like enough. Luckily I passed that first exam and happily collapsed for the holidays. Although I will admit it, as happy as I was that it was over, passing didn’t feel like enough. After years of striving for those A+s on course work papers I felt like a failure even though I passed.
Over the Christmas holidays I gained some momentum back. I picked up projects, I read some books. I wrote conference papers and worked on book chapters and I was starting to feel human again. The second exam wasn’t as isolating because my best friend was also writing the same exam and therefore we could get together once or twice a week and talk about what we had read and how it related to our respective dissertations. Also, in January I started a process recommended by my supervisor where for 20 minutes everyday I wrote. Often about how much the last semester had drained me and how I was going to get my life (which at the time felt like a disaster) back on track. I made some huge changes in my life both personal and professional. I started changing everything I could and instead of scaling off projects to focus on comps I took on as many as I could. I made plans to travel for work and for pleasure, New York, Chicago, Sweden, Denmark, Nova Scotia, PEI, New Brunswick, Toronto x infinity. I basically decided I was okay with failing my exam as long as I felt like I was still learning and I was happy while I did it. I didn’t fail of course. I did substantially better than I did on my first exam even though I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I should have been focused on comps not traveling to Sweden to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey and help edit a book about sexual fantasies, or visiting my best friend I hadn’t seen in 2 years in Denmark, or going to New York to a comic convention to see talks by Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruise, and Art Spiegelman, or going on that long planned road trip to the east coast with my other best friend, or spending weekends going to shows and parties or binging Parks and Rec in Toronto with my partner. The list of things I knew I should never ever do if I wanted to be the ideal grad student goes on and on. I know I wasn’t being the best grad student last semester because I wasn’t reading every single word in every single book on the exam list in an effort to get the best mark on the exam possible. I was just trying to be happy, be a good TA, get all my marking done on time, and scrape by on the exam. Maybe if there had of been a goal in mind that wasn’t the exam I wouldn’t have felt so hopeless, maybe if the exam was set up more like a class I would have learned more through discussion. Maybe if the goal was a take home exam or a piece of more developed writing I would have been happily writing my first dissertation chapter, or an article to publish, or maybe even a series of blog posts. I have no clue because that wasn’t what happened. I passed all three exams and I guess I’m happy enough with how it went, but more than anything I’m just happy it’s over.
So now I’m starting year 3 of the PhD and again I’m finding myself lost, I’ve made it through the comps year and I can start writing my dissertation! Woohooo right!? I’ve been happily reading and jotting things down for about a month now for my proposal but overall I find myself feeling as if I’ve forgotten how to write. I’ve spent a year studying and not writing. Instead of writing myself into my dissertation, I feel as though I’ve studied my way out of it. I find myself thinking things like: “what was my writing process like?” and “how did I write this old dissertation outline so effortlessly 2 years ago?”. Thank god past Emma spent so much time writing because I’m now relying on the thousands of words she jotted down on my dissertation topic during her MA, her year off from the MA, or the first year of her PhD. Because she had momentum, it pushed her through fourth year of her undergrad and towards grad school, through the coursework of the MA and the PhD — all to get to the point that I’m at right now. I may have not been as theoretically equipped to write my dissertation the summer after course work but I was absolutely in a better mind set for it. I had just finished writing all those course work papers and was chomping at the bit to start writing my dissertation! In fact I DID start writing chapter one way back then and then promptly stopped when I felt like I absolutely had to start studying for comps or I would run out of time. I constantly felt like I was already out of time.
I know that comps isn’t like this for everyone, I know there are some people who would be happy to get a break from writing, who enjoy the challenge of being tested, and who can read at the speed of light, but I also know countless other grad students for whom it was the year that soured them on the entire experience. It makes you question, repeatedly, if you are really “PhD material”. You start wondering if the challenge is to memorize the information or is it just to survive? Writing exams has never been my strength as an atypical student but furthermore it has never been how I learn. I am well aware that most of what I read in the last year will slip through the cracks for me because I didn’t get a chance to write about it and now I have other things I need to focus on. I know I wrote the four hour exam but that isn’t the same as REALLY writing about something. The joys of tossing down thoughts like a watercolour wash and then peppering in the details and prettying it up as you go. When writing an exam you are writing under a time constraint in an effort to prove how much you know about something and not attempting to reel in and enlighten your audience on a certain topic. It’s just not the same. It felt more like running for my life then constructing a sound argument.
I also know that being this vocal about my experience as a grad student doesn’t paint me in the best light. We are supposed to pretend that it was all a cake walk so that we fit the image of the true academic who beholds a type of divine right that is backed up by the authority of the institution. But I hope that being this vocal about it will maybe be beneficial to other grad students that I know (or don’t know!) in some way. Or at the very least, I hope that writing about the process of the PhD is beneficial to myself in an effort to start writing again. Really writing like I used to, not my current process where I write for 20 minutes everyday walk away and no one ever sees it.
I think a lot of us are scared to share our writing because of the image of the “ideal” grad student that is imposed on us. Scared to publish, to hand in a draft of a dissertation chapter, to make mistakes. Some grad students I know are afraid to put down a sentence on paper until it’s in perfect “academese”. Too afraid to articulate the content of an idea without first perfecting the form. A year ago I was the kind of person who tossed out my ideas clumsily into the public sphere and maybe regretted it later when I had changed my mind on this or that or was facing a glut of negative internet commenters, but I did it anyway. This last year I have instead been regretting things before I even share them out of some sort of academic anxiety where I constantly fear the single undeveloped idea, name mixup, or blog post typo that brings down my entire career one opportunity at a time. The fear being that I will accidentally convince people that I am not actually an academic because I’m not perfect. But as my supervisor pointed out to a group of us in her mandatory professionalization course (one of the best experiences I’ve had here at Waterloo), I’ll never be my vision of the ideal academic: the quiet, solitary, nervous, quick reading, full book devouring, editorless, literary encyclopaedia, grammar-nerd type of man whose last draft is really their first draft. I’ll never be that ideal because it is crafted by my own personal imagining of everything I am not. What I can be is that smart, thoughtful, constantly questioning, feminist who isn’t afraid of her own subjectivity and loves to write all day every day. I’m convinced I can be that person again. I just need to get my momentum back. Which is what this is all about. My approach for the last year was “don’t blog anything unless you think it’s perfect” (i.e. blog nothing), which I am now officially exchanging for “blog everything and fuck arbitrary standards of quality”. So I am planning on starting to blog more, a lot more, but instead of being fully formed arguments about things I am about to publish on it will be more about fleeting thoughts about whatever it is I’m reading/writing about. Right now I just finished reading a book about how two cognitive scientists see the ways we consume pornography, (spoilers – I hated it) so expect a lot of ranting about that.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment with your own experiences or ideas about how the exam experience (or overall grad school experience) could be enhanced! Now that I’m finished writing this post I’m feeling as ready as I think I will be to finish my dissertation proposal draft. I may have felt like I was going 100km an hour and rolling downhill before comps, but right now going at a steady 50 and hour feels good enough.