Something old, something new

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As you know if you agg or visit Derek's blog, he passed his exams yesterday. So in part, you might read this entry as congratulations, which it most certainly is. Interestingly enough, three of the four members of his exam committee, myself included, are active bloggers.

Which is something of a segueway into what I want to point out. The examination process, while it has a fair number of virtues (time set aside for reading, self-definition, synthesis, etc.), is also a holdover from a much different time. At SU, we've tried to mitigate its Academy 0.5 qualities by offering different kinds of "exams" in place of making them all "sit down for 3 hours and type as fast as you can" sessions. And we've very intentionally streamlined the proposal process, which at one time was so problematic that we had students taking waaaay too much time and spending way too much energy on formal, article-length exam proposals.

But still. The process of taking exams is in many cases and at many programs (a) something that coursework in no way prepares you to do (although ideally it helps with the reading) and (b) something that in no way prepares you for any of the writing that you will do for the next 10, 20, or 40 years as a professional. The exam process, as I've told many people, is the apotheosis of the event model of writing, and in some ways, the single worst way to prepare a student for work on a dissertation. To read that much, you almost have to hide yourself away. My own experience of exams was highly antisocial, as no one else was reading what I was, as quickly as I was, or for similar purposes. The reading we do for coursework, both as students and as professors, is by contrast a pretty social reading, enough so that many people I know (myself included) don't feel like they've really read something until they've taught it.

But this is an Academy 2.0 post, and so I should turn to one of the things that Derek did in preparing for his exams. If you haven't visited his Exam Sitting site, you should do so. If you're faculty, and supervise students preparing for exams, or if you're someone who'll be taking exams sometime in the future, you should be thinking about adopting this model. Each entry simply records, categorizes, and tags the reading notes for a particular text--the entries themselves do little more than what our graduate students across the country do on a daily basis as they read for courses or prepare for exams. But the site itself, among other things, provided a measure of his progress, a way for me and other committee members to peek in on his progress, an opportunity to see the larger patterns among his readings, connections among the readings, and finally, a resource that is going to be useful for him for years after the exams are a distant memory.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that Exam Sitting is the most important webtext to be published in our field last year. It's a great example of applying a personal database to the work that we do in graduate school and more productive and useful in the long term than a file box full of notebooks. For the last couple of years, I've been evangelizing just this kind of use for blogs to our students, using them as a place to store notes, making them searchable, and to tag notes, making possible the kinds of operations that happen on Derek's site. I'd love to see this kind of work made collaborative as well--notes like these are no substitute for the actual reading, but someone can go to ES and figure out pretty quickly whether something is worth reading or not. And they can trace a given reading out into a network of related texts. Multiply what Derek accomplished in six months of reading and writing by an entire program's worth of graduate students, and you'd have a resource more vital than anything that currently exists in our field.

Not to name names, but as the field marches on, certain resources have passed on to the Great 404 in the Sky, and others spring up to take their places. And over and over, I've seen electronic resources created to conform to a vision of the field that hearkens back to the time before such resources were possible. I'd love to see us instead start imagining the field according to the possibilities such resources present to us. And that's the gentlest way I know of putting it.

So join me in congratulating Derek for passing the Academy 0.5 step of comprehensive exams. But he deserves congratulations as well for putting an Academy 2.0 spin on that process, and making it his own. I know that it wasn't easy, but I have no doubt that it will pay off for him in the long run.

That is all.


I'm not sure if it's still in play, but when I did my exams at Michigan Tech in the early 1990s, there were several options for qualifying exams, including one that allowed you to get one question a week. This struck me as a more realistic challenge, so I picked that. I ended up writing a C&W conference paper and the first drafts of two journal articles.

I think that's still an option there, and one that I like. We do the same for one of the minor exams as part of our exams, but the rest are 3-hour sitdowns...

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on February 2, 2007 7:42 PM.

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