Sunday, January 17, 2010

Grad Exams: Tales from Both Sides

Hey, grad students!

First of all: sorry about the job market. Seriously, it sucks, and it's a piece of dumb luck that you got stuck coming out this year. Or last year. Or -- as I suspect is true in many cases -- both. I was a lucky, lucky woman to have come onto the market in a year that was as good as it was -- the applicant-to-job ratio in my field was 3:1, and while that seemed like some steep odds at the time, I know it's paradise compared to what you all are facing.

But for those of you who don't have to face it quite yet, there are other hurdles to be negotiated. For me, the worst was not the dissertation, but the exams. I'm cursed by poor recall. I think of my brain like a big filing cabinet drawer: I have all the information filed away in neat little folders, and once one of those folders is in front of me, I have a cascade of information and interesting insights. But the process of going through the files and pulling out the right folder seems to be missing. So I have become an obsessive note-taker and organizer.** But the one exam I had to take in the room with no notes and no time to prepare and outline? Bad. And my orals? Well, let's just say that I passed them on the strength of my writtens.

Don't believe me? At one point, while being questioned about continuity and change in religion between the medieval and early modern eras, I forgot the Protestant Reformation. Not something about it; I forgot the whole thing. Kept babbling on about the Council of Trent. The person questioning me finally gave up trying to jog my memory, and we moved on to the next person.***

Now that's got to make you feel better about your own exams, right?

Now, here's the thing: I'm giving a grad exam this weekend. Yup: one of my M.A. students is taking an exam this very weekend. Normally I wouldn't administer an exam over break, and especially when I'm trying to do page proofs and an index on my book, write a book review, and somehow prepare for a three-month research trip. But this student is on active duty in the army, and has been deployed twice since starting the program. We worry about her when she's away (once to Afghanistan, once to Iraq), and we worry that if we wait until I get back from sabbatical, she'll be shipped off again. So this weekend, she's writing two ten-page historiographic responses to questions I gave her.

So guess what I've been doing all week? That's right: I've been reading the materials on her reading list. Because, you know, I need to know this stuff, too.

Now, some of my faculty colleagues are likely goggling in wonder. Why, they w0nder, should I be giving exams in subject areas I know little about? Well, here's how it is at Urban University: I am the one person in my field, and feel like the M.A. students should get to study something they're passionate about. So usually, I pick one question that I know about or think is "important", and the other I tailor to their interests. I won't do the one or two subject areas that I find intensely irritating, but other than that, I'm open.

So here I sit, hoping I can finish the reading on my student's list by the time she turns in her exam. And I'm learning a great deal about medieval queenship in a relatively short time. And I hope she does well, because she's reasonably bright and a hard worker and just damned persistent, in a good way.

But I still wish this weren't on my to-do list.

**Note to grad students: If you suffer from some similar problem, you probably were able to get accommodations under the ADA as an undergraduate. You probably still could in grad school, but think of this as the time to develop your own strategies for coping, because in the end, you not only have to do the work; you have to do it better than 90% of the other grad students around the country doing the same work. Even more, you have to convince your professors that you are better than 90% of the grad students around the country doing the same work. This is just one of the many ways in which grad school ain't pretty.

***Even better: 5 minutes into the next questioner's turn, he said something that tripped a switch, and I turned to the previous examiner and fairly shouted, "Oh! The Protestant Reformation!" For real. I am a sad, sad case.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Notorious, I managed to blank on the Admonitio Generalis, and then mixed it up with Louis's the Pious' monastic reforms. Argh. I could tell the committee all about each of them, but I remember saying clearly that I was an idiot, because I thought that the AG was the name for Louis' reforms, nt Charlemagne's. And this from a putative Carolingianist.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I know a law student who wrote an entire legal memorandum on a particular question of federal law reviewing all of the different precedents in the different federal circuits, but missing the Supreme Court ruling that had decided among them.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for sharing your own grad student frailties. Makes me feel much better, as I have all this to look forward to yet! I hope your student does well - it must be tough to handle that in between deployments.

Susan said...

When I did my writtens, I managed to reverse my argument in the middle of one essay. No one prepared me to answer that in the orals.

Then one of my profs asked about a certain concepts, and I went on and on about it, but it was clear that he had something in mind that I wasn't talking about. Finally he said, "Have you read X"? And I said sure, and went on about it. But I'd filed it mentally in a different category from the one he was asking about. So it's always useful to know how your prof organizes ideas. (In this case, he was new that year, so he sort of walked into my committee.)

My advisor always said that you could always fail someone on orals, and you could always pass them. To do one, you found something they didn't know and just kept at it; in the other, you find what they DO know and keep at it.

Dr. S said...

If it makes *you* feel better re: the Protestant Reformation, I once blanked on not one but TWO major poets in my time period. During a job interview. In which I was being asked how I would teach a course in my time period's poetry. About five minutes later, I exclaimed, "Oh, and of course the poetry course would include X and Y!"

Perhaps needless to say, I did not get that job.

Bookbag said...

Wow, you're really nice to do all that extra work for your student! A lot of people would have just made student tailor her research interests to suit theirs.
As for exams, I am a huge weirdo and sort of liked them. It was the one aspect of graduate school where I felt like expectations were clearly delineated. That, and passing my exams felt so great -- I felt like I'd accomplished something. But I can certainly understand why most other people despise them -- they are really stressful!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, guys. Nice to know I'm not the only one. And grad students should take heart from all this: even a big, public humiliating moment at a critical time won't necessarily disqualify you from getting a job.

English Adjunct said...

Glad to see that everyone is human. I am dreading my exams as I am not so charmingly awkward while under pressure.