Saturday, April 13, 2013

How I Prepared for My English Lit Comps and Passed with Flying Colors

Of the 12 books I have read so far this year, 6 were because my incredibly terrible awesome professors who wanted to destroy my soul make sure that if my graduate education had lacked in some area, that I would make up for that fluke by studying them on my own. While I was teaching full time. And taking my final graduate class. Good terrible times.

Step One
I started by picking the texts I was most comfortable with from the UNLV reading list to put on my own personal reading list. I started with books I had taught, then books I had studied as a graduate student, then books I had studied as an undergraduate student, then books I had read for pleasure. After mailing those out to my professors, they had quite a few additions and didn't mention a single subtraction which is how I ended up with 27 books on my list (although only 20 are required) - I found out two days ago from a professor who is NOT on my committee that that was the most number of books she had ever heard of being on a list. I really wish someone had said that to me before my list was finalized.

Step Two
My actual list was thus:
Canterbury Tales: Prologue, Knight's Tale, Miller's Tale, Wife of Bath's Tale
Titus Andronicus (last minute switch from Othello)
4 Poems by John Donne
A Vindication on the Rights of Women
Pride and Prejudice
4 Christina Rossetti Poems
Great Expectations
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Portrait of a Lady
The Yellow Wallpaper
The Awakening
Heart of Darkness
Souls of Black Folk
House of Mirth
3 T. S. Eliot Poems
3 Gwendolyn Brooks Poems
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Death of a Salesman
Things Fall Apart
Bluest Eye
Song of Solomon
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven

Step Three
Any text that I had not read, I read thoroughly, in chronological order.

Step Four
I went through my whole list chronologically (as above), and re-read introductions, looked it up in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, looked it up in my Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, looked up any theory I knew I wanted to read (like the Tolkien article on Beowulf and the Achebe article on Conrad) read the Sparknotes, and typed up an introduction as written by me, a character list with descriptions as described by me, and a plot summary as summarized by me. This was about an hour for poets and books I was very familiar with or books that were short up to three hours for the really long books that I haven't tackled in a while (Great Expectations was a three hour one. So was Beowulf because I wanted to focus on women in Beowulf so it took a while to find all the research I could on the surprisingly high number of ladies).

Step Five
I then hand wrote an even shorter version of my typed notes focusing on what I really thought was important or what I really didn't know particularly well.

Step Six
I reread my handwritten notes repeatedly.

Step Seven
I made post its with just a character list and went through each novel talking about it aloud. If the characters and plot weren't readily available off the top of my head, then I turned the post it into a tab and reviewed those tabs repeatedly. I really struggled keeping characters and plot lines straight between: Evalina, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Portrait of a Lady, House of Mirth because they all involve a young lady navigating the world with various suitors and a marriage or a death ending. 

Step Eight
I organized my list into several different lists based on different commonalities (ie: writers of color, books by women, books about women, epistolary texts, novels of manners, happy endings, tragic endings, bildungsroman, etc)

Step Nine
I took a two hour nap right before my comps. This may or may not have been necessary because I had been at the New Order concert the night before, which I had bought tickets to specifically because I figured I wouldn't be doing anything productive at 10pm at night anyhow *and* I had taken the next day off of work anyhow. Unfortunately, I unexpectedly took a new teaching position at a different school, and my new Department Chair was very enthusiastic about me coming to the school to check it out, so I got 5 .5 hours of sleep the night before my comps. I would not recommend doing that. 

Step Ten
I rocked the heck out of my comps. My committee chair began by asking questions about the cluster of African-American literature (from "why did you pick these works" to "how are they related" to "W. E. B. Dubois has a few chapters on education, would you talk to us about those" to "How do the later African-American works reflect the philosophies of Dubois and Booker T. Washington"). Then another member asked questions about the cluster of women-writing-about-women. His initial question I couldn't answer because it involved feminist theorists I'm not familiar with, but he allowed me to just talk about broader feminist theory in general. That lead to questions about Frankenstein and Beowulf. My outside-of-the-English-department committee member is an Education professor who teaches future English teachers, so she asked me a few pedagogical questions which lead to the rest of my questions being kind of teacher related (how would you teach class consciousness and the American dream in Death of a Salesman, which book that is not commonly taught would you teach and why, etc).

I was able to bring in a lot of my own research that wasn't necessarily required to the table, and I think that that showed my academic chops (for example, in respect to the Yellow Wallpaper I brought in Dr. Clair's place, another short story by Charlotte Gilman Perkins, the Dr. Mitchell cure and how both CGP and Edith Wharton had undergone the Mitchell Cure with totally different results and also totally different literature to write afterwards, and then connected the Mitchell cure to The Awakening with how women creating art seems to scare men which we see when Edna Pontillier starts painting rather than taking social calls and how the narrator in the Yellow Wallpaper has to hide her writing). 

The only texts that we did not really talk about were: the John Donne poems, the Christina Rossetti poems, the Gwendolyn Brooks poems, and Portrait of a Lady. Christina Rossetti and Portrait of a Lady were both additions that my committee members wanted me to make, so I am a little irked that I tackled them for nothing.

Needless to say, my committee was happy to tell me that I passed with flying colors, and my education professor, who by virtue of teaching English teachers is called on to sit on a lot of English committees (while I could have a physics professor on board, I doubt I could find one who would really be interested), said that it was the best comps exam she had EVER seen. 

So, I'm really proud of myself and very happy to be finished with that chunk of my life. Back to blogging (just read Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston) and focusing on classwork (next section of my Madame M and Kiss of the Spider Woman essay is due on Thursday) and working out and cooking (I have gained about 10 pounds this semester due to my need for caffeine, sugar, and fast food/frozen food. Eek!)

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