Around two and a half years into my English PhD program this past fall, I started reading for field exams. Each PhD program runs their exams differently. For us, we have two sets of exams: Fields and Quals. For fields, we choose three areas of study for which we devise a list of 20-30 texts per field.

My fields are Comparative Media Analysis, Post WWII Deserts of the American West, and 18th Century Narratology. We had general field areas we could choose from, and I, like everyone does, made of my fields specific in conjunction with the profs heading each one. Comparative Media Analysis is nice because it’s sort of the precursor for my quals and eventually for my dissertation. (My main focus in my program is comparative media, particularly in the context of narratology [hence my third field]). I had to choose a pre-1900 area, so I went with the long 18th century because I wanted to do a narratology field, and the 1800’s with all its first attempts at novels seemed the appropriate time period. The desert field is simply something that interests me that is unrelated to my other work. It perfectly coincides with the honors writing seminar I designed and am teaching this semester on the same subject. I don’t write about the desert in academic settings, but I do make art about the desert, whatever that means, and it is my main obsession and travel destination, so I figured this would be a fun field, and it has been. I’ve learned so much that truly enhances my perspective of a place that’s always intuitively meant so much to me.

Here, pretty much, are my lists (not in MLA format because I am lazy):

We read our 20-30 texts per field and at the end, which for me is right now, we have ten days to write an essay responding to a question posed by the professor we’re working with in each field. We help formulate the question, so we have some knowledge of what’s coming. We have to choose anywhere between three and six texts to write about for each essay. Here are my choices:

Comparative Media Analysis
Post WWII Deserts of the American West
18th Century Narratology

It’s actually been an ok seven days so far. I chose to do my ten day exam period over spring break so that I wouldn’t have to balance this with teaching duties or anything else. All semester I’ve been reading to the point of headaches and eye pain, I’ve been drafting and redrafting both a fellowship research proposal and a dissertation prospectus, I’ve made a digital remix film for a conference I’m presenting at next week, and I’ve been teaching this class on the desert. So I’m usually doing a million things at once, but for these ten days, all I have to do is write. And I’m realizing how much I’ve missed writing. I’ve been so busy consuming everyone else’s ideas, it’s nice to remember I have my own ideas. For each field, I spend one day planning and pulling quotes, one day drafting, and one day revising. That will leave one day at the end to revise again, proofread, and format. I do the first day of each essay inside with my stack of books, I do the drafting day outside with Malta on my front porch, and the third day is a combination of inside and outside.

When I’m done with Field Exams, I move on to Qualifying Exams. For quals I have to submit a dissertation prospectus and bibliography, sit for a three hour in-house written exam, and do an oral defense of my prospectus. Because of this, I’ve been in a prospectus writing workshop all semester with some of my peers who are also at the quals stage. Oh and I had to do a translation exam to prove advanced competency in another language, so I did that this semester when I translated a few pages of an article about Juan Rulfo into English.
I’m writing all this because my friends in academia want the specifics and my friends and family outside academia want to know why I’m being such an elusive, grumpy asshole lately. So here you go. Here’s all of it. Hypothetically my oral defense for quals will be on April 17th. After that point, if I pass, which is the plan, I will be free of all responsibilities for the semester other than finishing my class and grading final seminar papers. I would then spend the next two years in my program writing my dissertation and applying for jobs. Some of this, however, is contingent on the fellowship I applied for. If I don’t get it, I won’t have to do quals this semester, which means I’ll do them next semester, and I’ll reapply for the fellowship, which might add a year to my progress, but that’s all somewhere in the future. 

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