I finished my second comprehensive exam last Friday: The social construction of the Internet. It went a lot smoother this time round; I wasn’t writing scared in the final hours. I learned a few things. Imagine.
About a week before this second exam, I found that my brain reached a saturation point. I managed nonetheless to read a few new texts (!) and reread some ones read 4 months ago – texts I knew were foundational. That was very helpful. The main thing I did differently was write up some stuff ahead of time. This was something TedH had recommended way back, 6 months ago or so. For whatever reason I just didn’t have it in me for the first exam. But this time, I started my exam a day earlier. That is, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided 1. what I wanted to write on; and 2. what was likely going to be on the exam. Happily these things coincided. So I began writing out Marx’s theory of technology, based on my contention that he was, in fact, a social constructivist. Seen from another light, this amounts to a defense of Marx against charges of technological determinism.
The first question (of the 5 I received) was a doozy (thanks Rick!) and it was exactly that Marx question. I took that as a good omen. The second and final question I chose happened to be the subject of a conference paper I’ve been thinking about for my panel at the Union for Democratic Communication conference this fall. So that was a great chance to write out some ideas that have been fermenting; I hope to use that answer as a starting point for my paper.
I kept up my same schedule as the first time, breaking for lunch, taking tea as I worked and heading out for a run at 6pm. I wrote the exam in Point Grey, so runs along the ocean were amazingly invigorating. Dinner at 7, then writing till too tired, around 11 both nights. I finished the first question on the first day; last time I was still writing the first question part way into the second day which, obviously, wasn’t good.
Nonetheless, by the second day I was feeling it – the pressure, the brain drain, the exhaustion was setting in. But I just kept plugging away and you know, I think things turned out ok. I even had a chance to proof read this time, so there were limited embarrassing typos. It is an exam after all, so I have to believe there’s a bit of grace.
The experience of the first exam really helped, I think. In part, just knowing what to expect is hugely valuable. Also, writing ahead – even a few hundred words of a coherent argument – is immensely advantageous. And also thinking about what it is you want to write about, and then selecting your questions and framing your answers with that in mind, is key. I mean, this is my career – my life, really – not some random hoop I’ve got to jumpt (though in truth, it is that too). I should be writing about what I’m interested in, what I’ll be researching in the near or distant future.
While I felt my first exam was was a hazing ritual with little pedagogical value (and said as much to the Grad Chair), it seemed this time that I really got something out of it. I could, at last, see the value of this process.
So now the oral defense in three weeks. But before that a few things: 1. first day of teaching CMNS 253 solo tomorrow; 2. Web of Change, where I’ll present; and then back in town for the defense. God love Rick Gruneau for calling it a chat, b/c that’s about all I’ll be in the mood for.