Advice to (not) Follow: One Way to Get Through the Reading Semester

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The first bit of qualifying exam advice is not to follow anyone’s advice.

If you are reading, prepping to read, procrastinating reading, complaining about reading, behind, ahead, or on schedule for reading, then you are probably already in the whirl of veterans telling horror stories of broken computers, interrupting undergrads, crying, absurd laughing, and days of either sleeping too little, or far too much. This is often paired with the sage and almost deranged eye-twitchingly paradoxical comments, “It’s the best time!” or “You are going to feel the smartest you’ve ever been!” and, my personal favorite, “You get paid to read books for a whole semester (if not more)!” So, adding one more voice into the mix, writing a post reflecting on my personal experience through qualifying exams is not going to offer anything else other than options to consider in tandem with the battleplan you and your committee drafted.

Beyond meeting with my major field examiner every week, I was and still am an advocate for a solid reading schedule. I printed a blank calendar, divided my fields into primary and secondary texts, and assigned these to certain days, often leaving Sunday as a breathing day of not reading, or for catching-up for those days when Moby Dick or Portrait of a Lady smack you with either dense slow-moving prose, or tome-like length. However, when they say a book a day is normal, and it is often the speed you find yourself doing, don’t forget that there is wiggle room for longer texts.

This threads into the next point: your schedule is your schedule. Your cohort member(s) who are also examining with you do not matter. How fast they are (or not) making it through their list is of no concern to you and your exams. This is not to say you should not share and commiserate about particularly challenging, hilarious, or dry texts (ask me sometime about Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World), but do not get caught up in a comparison game. Your process, your schedule, and your methods to get into that computer lab to write on the first day are your own.

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I know one thing that helped me, other than a good steady stream of coffee, was audiobooks. If you are examining in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, you can find most of your texts on Archive.org’s sister site: LibriVox. For those days where you need to travel, or your eyes just can’t scan a page anymore, hearing a few chapters read by a volunteer may help you shake the dust a bit. I ended up listening to a lot of Frank Norris’s McTeague while doing laundry, running at the gym, and cooking large one-pot meals for the week. It may not be the most sustainable practice, but you can totally get by on a few chapters of semi-good audio readings, and it may just keep you from going stir-crazy.

Speaking of that cooped-up feeling and almost anchoritic-like seclusion that reading may inspire, some of the best advice given to me by friends and committee members was to enjoy some time away from the books. If this means setting a schedule that leaves you a day off, do it! Even if that day is just going shopping at Wegmans (there was an absurd amount of bread bought some weeks), or taking a trip to HD’s grave for some local Moravian-poet goodness and literary tourism, then do it! Go to events the department is planning, sit on committees, go to workshops, hang out with friends, plan movie nights (that last one got me through a lot of tough weeks).

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This is to say that the reading semester is not a punishment, it is not a monolithic challenge of mastering every line of text, it is not supposed to destroy you (although it will push your skills). Instead, it is supposed to test your ability to synthesize large quantities of information quickly and chart major shifts in both criticism and primary works. It’s like an immersion experience, you are constantly swimming in your fields and percolating potential dissertation ideas. But, more importantly, you are sharing what you find in these books with colleagues (which includes your committee) and getting jazzed about these texts with other people who were, not too long ago, reading just like you.

I found there was a lot of nervousness about the speed of this semester, a lot of build-up of predominantly negative thoughts about how we structure our qualifying exams. I don’t want to discredit those feelings (which will happen) entirely, but I do want to stress that it does not matter if you are a slow or fast reader. It does not matter if you are a theory demigod with fantastic recall, or if you, like me, struggle with critical sources. The cries about this process being masochistic at best and sadistic at worst are, in my experience, unfounded. It is hard, you will trip-up, you will not finish every page, but if you talk to your committee honestly and openly and you stick to the work without making a spectacle out of it, I am sure you will survive the reading process and hopefully get to share your experience with another generation of examiners.

The Author

Kyle Brett is a current PhD student at Lehigh University and is a lover of history, coffee, and urban spelunking. Kyle's current research interests include, celebrity in 19th Century American literature, Lovecraftian mythos and popular cultural representations of Cthulhu, and digital humanities.

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