Sentence-coaster Rides, Screaming Prose


Flickr photo ReneS.

I jogged out the major qualifying exam yesterday, writing one answer in a
three-hour morning session and a second answer in a three-hour afternoon
session. I’m still a little bit groggy-headed about the whole of the
performance. I’m fairly sure that I did a better job of answering the first
question than the second. By the afternoon stint what was a heap of kicky
ideas in the A.M. was reduced to a wash of once-kicky ideas wanting for a nap.
I’m encouraged, still: I’m not embarrassed about the answers I wrote (okay, so
maybe I’d take back a couple of sentences, if I could), and I feel fairly
confident that I can defend my choices, explain why I did what I did, and
convince my calmmittee that I executed the two major exams well enough that I
deserve, more or less, to move on to what’s next. I was thinking about
including a note here about how much I wrote, about word and page counts,
since I’ve been prone to a fascination with such trivia throughout the duress
of preparation. But no, for now I will withhold those factoids. Today I’m
leaving out those details in protest (a protest of relief, to be sure) of word
and page counts. Let’s just say I wrote all that I possibly could in three
hours, twice.

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I went ahead and tried the exam-writing sprints Krista

. The questions I’ll be answering on Thursday, during a pair of
three-hour sittings, are only approximations. The exist in partially
remembered shreds from recent conversations rather than definitely, I mean,
in writing
. I’ve selected and assembled and condensed notes
accordingly, committing to probable answers and probable
organizations while figuring that I can bend the questions just enough to match
with the answers I’m best prepared to write.

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Again with the Exams

Again, I’m engrossed in exam preparations. The latest phase consists of
revolving shifts, a rotary of confidence and dread: waves of self-assured
anticipation (I’ll answer this way…), shudders of doubt (What if I
, have a lousy day, etc.). I’m not quite all frazzled and manic with
the process, but because it matters to me that I do well, because I want to
write answers that my committee judges intelligible and even interesting, it’s
not as simple as just shrugging off the anxiety. And while I can’t say
that I’ve been here before, been toe to toe with PhD qualifying exams, that is,
it does help to compare the stress of preparation to a certain nervousness I
felt before basketball games many years ago. When I played poorly during
those early years (as a freshman and sophomore), when I underachieved, Coach E.
said I was "pressing": giving in to the compulsion to do too much and therefore
perform all of it at a low level. The basketball solution boiled down to a
simple principle (whose alternative–fitness!–was running sprints until
collapse): do just three things well: box out, defend, go to the glass
(different days, different trios: no turnovers, make FTs, bruise the post scorer
without fouling). Keeping to just three simpler focal-metrics, the extras fell
into place, usually just accumulating in stride, without deliberate
effort. For qualifying exams, the correlation to pressing is jamming, working
into an unproductive (st)illness (er…stylessness). Yet, of course,
understanding that whatever induces anxiety (whether pressing or jamming) can
best be resolved by shifting methods (have a plan/outline, keep it simple, the
clock is an ally) certainly helps. Less than two weeks out, this is where I’m at
as I try to forge a work-path between making too much of exams and making too
little of them.

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I think I’ve
before that the exam-prep process has inspired in me fits of
number crunching in addition to the necessary obsessions with lists. For several
weeks, I’ve been checking off each item read, adding up the remainders,
subtracting them against the days left until. Qualifying exams, whatever
else can be said about them, encourage managed obsessiveness. It is a phase of
productively channeled bibliomania. They’re designed (at least in my
program) to get you do prepare more intensely than you’ve ever prepared for
anything else. Ever. The exam fever, however, has, for me at least, had a
side effect of hyper-numeracy. Where’s my calculator? Where’s my
spreadsheet? What day is it?

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I officially submitted my qualifying exam proposal today.
It’s a formality in the sense that I’ve been reading for several weeks, but a
formality, nonetheless, that moves me one small step closer to sitting for them
in ten weeks (or quite possibly sixteen weeks).


I was interested to read Paul Matsuda’s recent entry,
because it gets at the challenge involved in scholarly niche and rhythm. He begins with this:

One of the stock pieces of advice that I give gradaute students is to "read
everything." Of course it’s impossible to read everything that has ever been
written, but I do expect researchers to have read everything–literally
everything–on subtopics within the field on which they are writing.

This paradox is the ongoing challenge, no? Read everything; to
read everything is impossible. Still, one must. But cannot.
Etc. The outlying factors bear down and raise related questions: write
everything? How much to read before writing? While writing? How much to
write while reading?

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Note Systems

Success in qualifying the CIA accounting exam and later with the diss depends upon a reasonably
comprehensive note-taking system. It’s true, it’s true. Who would argue? (And so
it’s a truism hardly worth restating).

I took so-so notes throughout coursework, but I also experimented a little
bit too much, often making do with something messy and sketchy or other times
accepting as good enough a summary or some other sort of page long
response to the reading. From coursework, then, I have an assortment of notes. I
mean the category of notes includes all kinds and classes: stickies, composition
book messes, legal pads with many-an-in-class doodle, blog entries in the
reading notes category, and so on. Some are proving useful for exam preparation,
but many, regrettably, must be brushed up. In the weeks ahead, I’ve many notes
to groom. I should add, however, that much of the writing that happens beyond
the edge of intelligible notes is also worthwhile. So I wouldn’t say that
coursework would have been sharper for me at the time had I taken more
methodical notes. Yet with relatively minor effort, I could have focused my
coursework notes into something that, for being more regular in form and scope,
would have served me better later on (i.e., right now). So many lessons.

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Examinutiae II

Days remaining if I start my three-week qualifying exam period
on Nov. 22: 91.
Days remaining if I start my three-week qualifying exam period on Jan. 15: 145.

Number of pieces in the three exam lists: 169
Number left to read: 70 (44 books, 26 articles)
Number left to annotate: Anybody’s guess. Some integer between 70 and 134.

As you can see, I ran the numbers again this evening. It’s not
hopeless by any means, given that I can still meet the Nov. option if I have a
solid few weeks. The burr in my sock is that while I’m reading and
annotating individual pieces, the patterns arching across the readings are
perhaps best compared to a serving of spaghetti.

Dropped from a high-flying hot air balloon.

Into a turbulent ocean.

Where it’s being nibbled by predatory sea creatures.

You get my drift. Thing is, while time is short enough
for reading, I also have to form possible responses, give the new stuff a shape
beyond a set of finely tuned but scattered notes. So while reading is
going fairly well, the part where it sinks in such that I can do intelligible
justice to it in a few months: a disconcerting lack.

Indexical Thinking

As I continue to plod ahead with preparations for qualifying exams, I’m
becoming more and more cognizant of indexes and also more dependent on the them.
I’ve used indexes more casually in the past, almost always involving them as an
after-thought to front-to-back reading–as something merely referential, a
auxiliary text ranking well below everything else, a match with its rear-most
position. A mere aid to memory rather than a multiple and complex terminal for
differentiated reading encounters.

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