Tuesday, March 27, 2012


So, it's occurred to me that not everyone completely understands this crazy thing called "preliminary exams" that has taken over my life. That's my bad. I forget sometimes that I'm living in what feels like a rather isolated little academic bubble of reading and writing and teaching and grading, and that not everyone understands the crazy that is part of being a graduate student.

To get a Ph.D. in English in my program you have to 1) complete 48 hours of coursework, 2) take the Ph.D. qualifying examinations (which I passed my first year here), 3) complete a foreign language requirement, 4) pass the preliminary examinations, and 5) complete and defend the dissertation.

(Reading the handbook, I think I've got to go take out the phrase "Ph.D. candidate" from my email...I don't think that's true until I've passed prelims. )

At this moment, I have over 50 hours of coursework, passed quals, took French for Reading Knowledge (ugh), and am currently awaiting prelims this weekend. So what do these prelims actually mean?

It means that I have to demonstrate my expertise in two subject areas in a test. My subject areas, as most people already know, are Victorian literature (my primary concentration) and Restoration and 18th Century literature (my secondary concentration). What will happen is that Friday afternoon, I will go in and be tested on the long 18th century. I'll take the Victorian exam Saturday morning.

Most likely, the written portion of each exam will have a number of questions, perhaps six, and I'll be required to answer three of them in the four hours I have to take the exam. In the exam, I have to demonstrate my writing ability (which I'm not worried about), and demonstrate that my knowledge in the area is accurate, appropriately broad (I know a lot about a lot of things), and appropriately deep (that I can really delve into things with my answer). I also have to be able to demonstrate critical positions--that is, I have to be able to identify and apply appropriate literary criticism to the works I'm discussing.

Yeah, I know. That doesn't sound all that bad. What makes it particularly nerve-wracking is the fact that you get two shots at the exams. If you fail twice, you are out of the program. Period. Goodbye to the last ten years of work and the future you'd planned on.

But we won't dwell on that. Once a student passes the written portion of the exam, they then go on to orals, which generally takes place a week or two after the written exams. From what I understand--and there isn't much about orals in the handbook, though I wish there was--it's a conversation between you and the examiners, sometimes about what's in the written portion. They may ask questions or ask you to expound on things you wrote about, or ask you to cover other things.

So, that's where I am right now. The Victorian exam is not bothering me. The 18th century exam does, and that's partly because it is the exam which horror stories are told about. I've still been reading, but I think that at this point, I may simply not be able to cram any more information into my brain. All I can do is try to get some rest (yeah, right).

This is my first attempt. It's not like my future hangs in the balance. (Yet.) But if you are so inclined, send good thoughts my way this weekend. I'm going to need them.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Crazy time!

According to GoodReads, here's what I've read since the first of March.

The English Novel in History: 1700-1780
Satire and Sentiment: 1660-1830
High Victorian Culture
The Eighteenth Century Novel: The Idea of a Gentleman
The Madwoman in the Attic
The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 3.
(and half of Vol. 2)
The Commodity Culture of Victorian England
The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence
The Eighteenth Century
Sensibility: An Introduction
The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel
Making a Social Body: British Culture Formation

I've also been reading bits and pieces of other books that might be useful and rereading some important poetry.

What have I read for fun? Well, I took a day off and checked Jayne Ann Krentz's Copper Beach out of the library, and after this weekend, I'll have a review of it up. I've also finally got Pirate King, and I'm looking forward to reading it as well.

In fact, going back and counting it up, I've read 42 books already this year. I've also got four galleys to read and review in the next month, which I'm looking forward to.

Wow, I'm such a nerd.

In any case, all of this reading has been in the service of preliminary exam studying. So this Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, send prayers, thoughts, and good energy my way. I'm going to need it. :)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Enough already.

It's been a hard couple weeks. And the next week and a half are going to be worse.

I'm taking the Ph.D. preliminary exams in Victorian literature and in Restoration and 18th Century literature next week. I've been taking practice exams. I've been studying. And I've been doing a lot of other things that will distract me from the massive anxiety attack waiting to happen.

I called my mama this morning just to hear her voice and for her to tell me that everything was going to be okay. I don't do that a lot anymore--call my mama, I mean. It's too hard sometimes. Today was good; today, she was herself. Today, she was my mom.

Everyone else has been telling me that things are going to be fine too. Everyone comes up to me and says, "You're going to do great! You're so smart, you'll ace these." I want to shout at them that they have no idea, that I'm such a fraud. I'm afraid of failing one or both exams and disappointing everyone who assured me that I would do so well. It's Academic Insecurity Syndrome, we used to joke. Professors say that it never goes away. Maybe so, but it's never felt quite as real as it does right now. Dr. K tells me not to worry either, that I'm doing fine. As much as I love her, I still don't know if I believe her.

I've got a lot riding on this. The last ten years worth of work, my academic future, both immediate and not-so-much. I can taste anxiety in my mouth--it's bitter and nasty, and it won't go away, no matter how much medication I take. I'm not the only one; there are at least eight or nine of us taking exams next week, and I know that the office will not be pleasant next week.

There are other things. Other worries. Friends of a friend who were terribly beaten last week, who have been on my mind, the grandmother of another friend who took a terrible fall. A friend who suddenly finds herself in a position she never thought she'd be in, a position that makes me hurt for her and jealous all at the same time. And then the normal everyday worries of an everyday family.

There are good things. My husband has been taking such good care of me. For example, I haven't done the dishes in weeks--he takes care of all of that so I have time to concentrate and study, and then to rest afterwards. He holds me when I start to panic, makes sure that I'm going to be okay. Reminds me of what I always say to him: "God has taken care of us so far. No reason to think He's going to stop now."

Today, especially, I am homesick, though that may not be the right word. I miss my undergraduate years. There was studying and tests, but none of them were this important. I had lunch with my friends and the professors almost every day. In the springtime, Eastern smells like old books and mold, even just walking through the campus, and while that may sound disgusting, it's comforting. Sitting out by the fountain, chatting with friends, reading in the Ravine, hiding in the fourth-floor stacks of the library, reveling in the smell of old books. I loved that school. Still do.

I have to go teach here directly, a discussion of rhetoric and how students can reach an audience. I wish I could put what I teach into practice, teach myself how to argue myself out of wanting to crawl under the desk or pull the covers over my head and hide. But if there's any audience hard to reach, it's the audience of one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Farewell to an old standby

After 244 years, the Encyclopedia Britannica is finally going out of print.

This bothers me in many ways. It's not that the Encyclopedia Britannica is disappearing, but it is going to an online version. So what happens when the zombie apocalypse happens and all the computers don't work? Will we all be forced to get our knowledge from out of date encyclopedias?

Well, I did growing up, and it hasn't seemed to hurt me any. My parents were determined that we needed an encyclopedia in our house, but we couldn't afford a new one. My mom managed to pick up one from a yard sale--I'm not sure that it was the Britannica, off the top of my head. Twenty-six maroon tomes with faded gold lettering from 1956. I remember very distinctly reading in 1995 about "when man someday makes it to the moon."

I had a conversation with a colleague this morning about whether or not this was taking knowledge away from those who don't necessarily have technological access, but given the cost of encyclopedias, it was doubtful that they would be in a lower-income home anyway (at least not new--perhaps an out of date edition, like the one we had). We gathered that the idea is that if you have access to a library where you would be able to see a normal encyclopedia, you would have access to computers. But computers in libraries are often busy, assuming the library has them at all, and there are some public libraries in poor areas that don't.

I understand that this is an economic decision, and that the Encyclopedia Britannica print edition has probably been losing money for the last ten or fifteen years, if not more. But I do still hope that there will be a few print copies out there from the updated material, perhaps in the Library of Congress or in the Britannica offices. Just in case the zombies come.