How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying

This is my first in a series of blog posts about something of which the internet seems oddly devoid (no, not squirrel porn. Seems the web is dripping with that). I’m speaking of information on the experience of taking English doctoral comprehensive exams. Do a quick Google search. The first page is full of .edu addresses, giving the requirements and official descriptions of this activity. But I wanted to add something more personal by going into detail about what everyone refers to as “an exhausting experience.” This series will be a record of my mental, emotional, physical, and moral state as I read for these things, and at the beginning of September, take ‘em.

I imagine that doctoral students who haven’t yet taken their exams might be interested in this. But, also the non-doctoral type who’s curious about what happens to someone when they read 8-10 hours every day. I expect wildly colorful things will happen, probably mostly in some shade of burgundy.

While most programs give you six months to a year to read everything on your list(s), DU’s English department gives its doctoral students three months (cause we are that good… Or because that’s what our funding says we need to do). If your average comp exam is a marathon, mine will be closer to a half, but as with any shorter distance, the pace picks up. So I’ll be putting in longer hours.

I have three lists: a major figure, (the amazing) Stephen Graham Jones; a genre, The 20th and 21st Century Innovative Novel; and a special topic, Myth and Literature of the New West. Each list is comprised of between 40 and 50 texts. A text can be anything from an Infinite Jest-length novel to a journal article. Because I’m fiction writer, my texts are heavily novels, usually about 30 per list. So, to use the parlance of our times, I’m going to be reading my balls off.

Considering I finished my grading yesterday and have had classes 19 of the last 20 weeks, I’m starting my comps on an already depleted tank. I may start out limping a bit, but as my old track coach used to say, “Run hurt.” This saying would usually be accompanied by details of athletes who suffered gruesome injuries followed by their amazing triumphs. I expect nothing less.

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