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There will be prelims

Like many fellow Writing Studies grad students, I passed my written and oral prelims last fall. Several of us were taking them within weeks or months of one another, and I can’t recommend strongly enough that you talk to these people when your time comes. They shared articles, books, and chapters with me that really helped.

I’ll specifically focus on preparing for the exams.

First, read through Mary Wrobel’s list of questions. This list will give you an idea of the kinds of questions you’ll answer. Note that these questions are not overly difficult. Prelims are not the place to break new ground, test out new arguments, etc. Think of the kinds of questions you’ll want to answer, and provide those to your committee members. While they might not give you the exact question, you’re likely to get a variation on your exams.

Then, get your reading list, keeping your questions in mind. Ask people who have taken them already to see theirs. There is no need to create this completely from scratch. Also, refrain from the temptation of placing everything you have ever read or ever want to read on this list. Keep it tight, and don’t go overboard. Prelims are not the time to become an expert on Weaver if you’ve never read him. Ask your committee members to make suggestions, and then get the thing finalized. Don’t add it to it. I kept reading more and more and it was worthless in the end. Then, I gave my suggested questions to my committee members when I gave them my lists.

Then create a schedule to study for the exams. You’re reading for three, so it’s easy to muddle around for a while, reading here and there. I found it very helpful to set a schedule, a week and a half for this one, then move on to the next one, etc.

Then you have to actually read. I eventually found that the best way for me to read was to first peruse all my materials, taking general notes. Then I went through each question I gave to my examiners and made outlines for each one. I went through each source and tagged relevant pages with post-it notes with my notes like “Perelman and O-T - epideictic? or whatever was important on that page. Then, while taking the exams, I would just refer to my outline and then look for my post-its with the info I needed.

One of the most important things is not to overthink your exams. A month before taking them, I completely freaked out. It did not help. What did help was to return to my reading lists and questions, and realize these were things I knew, things I was familiar with, and things I could talk reasonably articulately about.

Greg and Krista gave a wonderful presentation last year on the entire exam process. If you weren’t able to attend, ask for the handout they prepared. Or you can find a link to it in this post on Krista’s blog.

I also want to add that I learned an incredible amount through this exam process. I really felt like a Rhetoric PhD candidate. It’s pretty grueling, more an endurance test than anything, but you learn so much from it. I read Aristotle three times during grad school, but it was only while reading for my prelims that I could make sense of it, or make an argument from it.

And, one resource I would like to help create with some fellow ABDers is a CD for our colleagues with PDFs of articles we found useful. There is no need for all of us to go through the process of locating, downloading, etc., every single article. Let’s compile our saved articles and give them to those ready to study. Of course, every reading list will be personalized, but we might have some classic articles or articles others haven’t seen but are useful to share. My husband’s PhD program does that, and it was the students who prepared the CDs for other students. Surely, we can do that too!

Comments

One more bit of advice to add: As a grad student and as an MA examiner at UMD, I find that the key is to have a working relationship with your examiners. Don't pick someone because you think they'd look good on your committee, or beause you want to be examined on something they know, but you don't know them.

An examiner who knows who you are will ask you questions you can answer. An examiner who doesn't, even the ones who mean the best, may ask you a question that you have absolutely no clue about -- not to be mean, but because they don't know what you know.

More important than the text or the question is the relationship.

David